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A Land of Racial Harmony?

Times Staff Writer

Sandra McWorter knelt on the soil and gingerly swept through the dirt with a tiny brush to find hints of her heritage.

The clues hidden beneath the wild grasses and rolling hills could give McWorter insight into what life was like for her pioneer ancestors in the Land of Lincoln. “Free Frank” McWorter bought his freedom from slavery and came here in 1831 to build New Philadelphia -- the first town in the U.S. legally settled, platted and surveyed by an African American.

Regional lore hails the town as a haven of racial harmony: a place where whites and blacks lived side by side, farmed the land, sold their goods, married one another and worshiped together -- more than two decades before the Civil War. But there’s no evidence -- no recorded memories, no journals, no newspaper accounts -- that proves or dismisses such camaraderie.

Today, New Philadelphia is a lily-covered pasture, and its Main Street a gravel path to a farmhouse. What remains is a puzzle that has teased scholars, history buffs and New Philadelphia descendants for years: Was this actually an island of racial tranquillity in west-central Illinois, when abolitionists were shot on their doorsteps and bounty hunters roamed the countryside kidnapping freed slaves?

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Or is this a case of historical revisionism?

It’s a question that has provoked a debate among the McWorter clan and other descendants of the 120 families that settled in New Philadelphia between the 1830s (when Free Frank bought the land and sold off the first parcel) and the 1860s (when the town population reached its peak).

Now, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, archeologists, anthropologists and students from more than a dozen universities are working to settle the matter and preserve the area as a national historic landmark.

The scientists have scanned the land with geophysical equipment to pinpoint where New Philadelphia once thrived and what its residents left behind. Each summer for the last three years, the crews have meticulously combed the earth. The process is painstakingly slow. So far, the scientists have excavated about one-thousandth of the site, or about one-third of a town lot.

The dig and other research already has produced tens of thousands of artifacts: pieces of porcelain dolls in different colors, smoking pipes, photographs of black and white farmers attending the same social events -- enough evidence to confirm that the races lived side by side, but nothing to indicate whether they got along.

The project is unusual, because many digs studying black culture before the Civil War focus on excavating slave quarters, said Paul Shackel, a University of Maryland anthropology professor and one of the project leaders.

“By looking at the remains of a free community, it’s helping us fill important gaps we have about America’s past,” Shackel said.

The descendants of New Philadelphia have joined in the project, as has a group of residents in Barry, Ill., the town closest to the site. Since the late 1990s, the two groups have been raising money to buy Free Frank’s hillside graveyard from Pike County. (The rest of the site is held in a private trust.) They’ve gathered census and land sales records, which the scientists are using in grant applications to further fund the dig. They have scoured the Internet and genealogy databases to locate other New Philadelphia kin, and made regular pilgrimages to the site, even though there’s little to see.

To some, finding the truth is a matter of ancestral pride. To others, unraveling the mystery of New Philadelphia is a quest to accurately record history.

“My ancestor was a great, great man,” said Sandra McWorter, 65, a Chicago-based graphic artist who considers her great-great-grandfather a visionary. “We want to do everything we can to unearth the truth and celebrate our past. We want to know what really happened.”

*

Examining the ground where a blacksmith shop once stood, Sandra picked up an odd-shaped clump. She used the tip of her fingernail to flick off what appeared to be dirt.

It was a nail, covered in rust.

Sandra carefully placed it into a paper bag filled with that morning’s findings: a handful of iridescent glass shards, a dozen other nails and a large pile of iron slag.

Most of the dig is sectioned off in 5-foot-square parcels, which the scientists and archeology students clear an inch at a time. At the end of the five-week dig each summer, the team puts down a porous cloth -- to make it easier to return to that spot the following year -- and refills the holes.

The project began in 2002, when scientists met with the New Philadelphia Assn., a nonprofit group of town descendants and residents in Barry (population 1,400).

“It was clear that this was a community grass-roots project, which is unusual in archeology,” said Christopher Fennell, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign assistant professor of anthropology who is working on the dig. “Normally, the public doesn’t get this involved. Who comes out to walk through a plowed field, looking for shards of glass?”

In the fall of 2002, Shackel and fellow project leader Terrance Martin of the Illinois State Museum joined other scientists at the 42-acre site, about six miles east of Barry. A farmer plowed the field, turning over the top foot of earth. Then the scientists and volunteers from the New Philadelphia Assn. walked across the land, looking to see whether enough artifacts could be found to warrant further digging.

They planted colorful plastic flags, about the size of greeting cards, at spots where objects were found on the surface: pieces of dish ware, nails and window glass clustered together, indicating sections of homes and businesses. By the time they were finished, more than 7,000 flags speckled the site, making the prairie look like a field of flowers.

“We hoped we’d find maybe a third that many,” Shackel said. “After we got a grant from the National Science Foundation, we went back, selected a few locations that appeared most promising and started digging.”

The depth of the discoveries told the scientists that residents lived here at least 150 years ago. Antique buttons carved out of bone and an elephant-shaped compass -- no bigger than an eraser head -- teased their imagination.

Chunks of ceramic plates were excavated from a home built by Squire McWorter, Free Frank’s son. Squire was known to have guided runaway slaves to Canada. Could the plates have been used to feed slaves in hiding?

Scientists also uncovered a Civil War button from a Union soldier’s uniform. Did the family house white soldiers from the North?

*

Juliet E.K. Walker, a McWorter descendant, grew up listening to stories of frontier life in New Philadelphia and tales about her great-great-grandfather’s accomplishments. In the 1980s, while studying her heritage as part of her doctoral research, Walker documented the history and published it as a book, “Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier.”

In Walker’s eyes, and according to her findings, racial harmony did not exist in New Philadelphia.

“It’s absurd, and there’s no evidence to back up the claim,” said Walker, 65, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. “What is significant, when you look at Free Frank’s whole life, is how this individual with no legal rights was able to utilize and manipulate law for his own advantage.”

McWorter was born a slave in 1777 in South Carolina. His father, who was white, owned his mother, who was black. As Frank grew older, he helped manage his father’s lands in Kentucky and, in his spare time, worked at neighboring farms and mined saltpeter to earn income. When his father died, his half-siblings became his owners.

By the time he turned 42, McWorter had saved enough money to buy farmland in Kentucky, and freedom for himself and his wife, Lucy. But most of his children and grandchildren remained enslaved.

The solution, he believed, was to turn land into cash. He looked westward to Illinois, where the federal government was selling land to military veterans and pioneers. The closest trading post was at least a day’s ride away, but it was fertile farmland.

In September of 1830, McWorter bought his first parcel in Illinois. He paid $200 for 160 acres. He and his sons eventually bought 800 acres. Most of the land was farmed.

McWorter and his wife crossed the frontier in a covered wagon and arrived on this remote stretch of prairie, about 83 miles west of Springfield, Ill., in the spring of 1831. McWorter began to create his town.

He surveyed the land and platted 144 lots, then persuaded authorities to file the paperwork for him with local courts. (McWorter was illiterate. He signed his name in the county deed books with an X.) Naming the town after Philadelphia, a center of the antislavery movement, McWorter put the lots up for sale, to “apply the proceeds of the Sales for the purchase of his family yet remaining as Slaves,” according to court documents from the time.

From 1837, until his death in 1854, he sold the acreage to anyone -- regardless of skin color -- who wanted it.

White families and land speculators came from the East, looking to take advantage of the economic opportunities of the frontier. So did freed blacks, and at least one biracial couple. By 1865, the town had become a minor commercial hub, with 112 white and 48 black or mixed-race residents, and more than half a dozen craftsmen including a shoemaker, a cabinetmaker and a wheelwright.

From the land sales, crops raised on his farm and other enterprises, McWorter earned about $14,000, or more than $300,000 in today’s currency, during the last four decades of his life. It was enough to buy 15 family members’ freedom.

New Philadelphia’s downfall began in 1869, descendants and historians agree, when a local railroad line bypassed the town about a mile to the north. People gradually moved to towns closer to the railways. By the early 1900s, prairie grass had reclaimed the land.

*

For the last three summers, as the scientists dig, the McWorter clan has hosted a New Philadelphia reunion. On a recent weekend, nearly three dozen local residents and town descendants gathered at a farmhouse. Over slices of freshly baked blueberry pie and bowls of homemade ice cream, they studied photocopies of land deeds and family Bibles with names and family trees jotted down.

“There’s no evidence to say folks didn’t get along. Why would whites buy land in and move to New Philadelphia, if they had a problem supporting and living with freed slaves?” said Gerald McWorter, 63, Sandra’s brother.

“Was it utopia? Probably not,” said Gerald, director of Africana studies at the University of Toledo, Ohio. “Was it filled with conflict? No.”

Walker disagreed.

“There were blacks on the frontier. There were whites on the frontier. To say these people were happily living side by side is like saying that slaves were happy on the plantation,” she said after the gathering.

Some tantalizing clues come from photographs descendants have found on their own. Formal portraits depict black or white families posed stiffly in their best suits and dresses. One photograph shows black and white children gathered together on the front porch of a school.

Philip Bradshaw, president of the New Philadelphia Assn., wondered: “Did they study together? Play together? Become friends?”

While searching for answers to the New Philadelphia puzzle, descendants say, they have found something just as important along the way: a bond among relative strangers, connected by forgotten bloodlines and a fascination with the past.

When 13-year-old Mariah Dove began asking questions about her family roots, her paternal grandmother, Karen Wall, turned to the Internet. The search led them to New Philadelphia: Mariah’s mother is a descendant of Free Frank’s granddaughter Hiley, and the town’s blacksmith, Alexander Clark. Wall also found a trunk in a relative’s home in Newton, Kan., full of pictures and family Bibles from the McWorters and Clarks.

Wall wrote letters and e-mails to the project researchers about her find, including one that reached Sandra McWorter. Sandra contacted Wall and invited the Kansas pair to visit New Philadelphia.

Wall, who is white, was welcomed by the McWorters even though she is connected to the town only by marriage.

“These are our people. This is our homecoming,” McWorter said. “We’re all part of the same heritage and we all want the same thing -- to preserve New Philadelphia.”


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