African American News and Genealogy

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

A Land of Racial Harmony?

New Philadelphia, Ill., settled by a freed slave, was seen as a colorblind utopia. Amid doubts, town descendants want the truth unearthed. By P.J. Huffstutter, Times Staff WriterJuly 14, 2006

HADLEY TOWNSHIP, Ill. — 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?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. Full Story:,1,6149288.story?coll=la-headlines-nation&track=crosspromo


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