‘Now it never will be forgotten’: Illinois' New Philadelphia becomes a national park
Gerald McWorter has a deep appreciation for his familial roots.
His Aunt Thelma, the family’s resident family historian, told him stories about the small Pike County, Illinois, town his great-great-grandparents founded nearly 200 years ago. The stories of New Philadelphia and Frank and Lucy McWorter always centered on the importance of family.
“What Frank and Lucy did was devote their lives really to making sure that on the one hand, they provided a place for the family in Pike County and New Philadelphia,” McWorter said. “At the same time, they devoted their economic activity to freeing family members out of slavery.”
In 1836, New Philadelphia became the first town in the nation to be legally registered and platted by formerly enslaved people. In recent years, the story of New Philadelphia and the McWorters has garnered national attention. In December, the town became the nation’s 424th national park, a move that supporters and descendants say will finally give the site the acknowledgement and long-term protection it deserves.
Frank McWorter was born into slavery in 1777 in South Carolina. He and his owner, George McWhorter, relocated to Pulaski County, Kentucky, in 1795. Four years later, he married his wife, Lucy, an enslaved woman from a neighboring plantation. In that time, Frank was able to hire out.
“There were certain conditions under which a slave could ‘hire out,’ meaning go to work for someone else, or to have some level of entrepreneurship,” McWorter said. “And then most of that money would go to their owner, but they would be able to save some of that money.”
Frank established a saltpeter mining operation in time for the War of 1812. Saltpeter is an ingredient in gunpowder. Eventually, Frank was able to turn a profit and save up enough money to turn a long-held dream he and Lucy had into a reality — freedom.
“Lucy and Frank decided that the first person to be freed from slavery would be Lucy, because she was pregnant,” McWorter said. “And they wanted their next child, who was a son named Squire, they wanted that he would be born free.”
A new beginning
Frank bought Lucy’s freedom in 1817 for $800. Two years later, he bought his own for the same price. Their freedom journey would ultimately include purchasing it for 16 family members, including the couple’s children, for $14,000.
The McWorters left Kentucky for Pike County roughly a decade after securing their freedom. They used some of the money they had saved to buy 42 acres of land sight unseen. The property was wedged between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers atop high ground. Despite legally acquiring the land and their freedom, Frank still had his concerns, particularly about the “h” in his last name, McWhorter.
“The usual name spelling is McWhorter,” McWorter said. “He took the 'h' out because he did not want the former slave owners to be able to come to Illinois and claim his property.”
As a newly freed Black man living in Illinois, Frank did not have the right to stop people from trying to lay claim to his land. Christopher Fennell, a professor of anthropology and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Frank crafted a plan to prevent that.
“He hires an attorney,” Fennell said. “They go on to Springfield and file the paperwork at that time to create a bill in the state legislature that would give him all the rights, responsibilities and capacities of someone who's classified as white under the Illinois laws and the national laws as they impacted the area at that time.”
In 1837, the Illinois General Assembly passed the McWorter law, effectively changing the spelling of his last name and guaranteeing his rights. The McWorters went on to buy more land in the surrounding area. New Philadelphia was known as an integrated abolitionist farm town with 160 residents at its peak. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Unlike other stops on the Underground Railroad, New Philadelphia did not have big houses with built-in secret compartments. Based on oral histories shared from other families in the community, McWorter said there was a creek and a cave where some freedom seekers would hide. They also used coded messages, such as letting the dogs chase a chicken, as a way to let people know to run and hide.
“If you think about the Underground Railroad, the people that pass through New Philadelphia, many of their family descendants may not even know their connection to New Philadelphia,” McWorter said. “So, when we talk about New Philadelphia as our family story, one of the things that the national parks status enables us to do is to go from our story to our story, the bigger our.”
New Philadelphia was a thriving community for years until 1857. That’s when a group of white businessmen from Missouri pushed for a railroad to be constructed. The rail line would cross Pike County connecting Hannibal, Missouri, to Naples, Illinois. The goal was to turn Hannibal into a major commercial hub, said Fennell. That plan, however, did not include New Philadelphia.
“These white business people in the slave state of Missouri in 1857 did not want to see this thriving African American town, which was a commercial hub, become an even more thriving depot town,” Fennell said. “So they actually spent more money in bypassing it.”
Black-founded towns in the U.S. were frequently disregarded as places with economic value. The move essentially cut off an opportunity for further economic growth.
But this was only the beginning of New Philadelphia’s decline. Many residents left for large metropolitan areas like Chicago and Kansas City for work. That’s how Gerald McWorter’s family made its way to Chicago.
“As the family farm ceases to be the norm and agribusiness tends to dominate, there continues to be migration out of the rural area,” McWorter said. “So this is a general pattern that goes way back and continues to today.”
New Philadelphia dissolved in 1885. By this time, both Frank and Lucy had died. But their descendants and people in surrounding communities never forgot about New Philadelphia.
New Philadelphia rises
Philip Bradshaw grew up in Griggsville. As a kid, the now 84-year-old farmer and his family would drive by New Philadelphia on their way to a church in nearby Barry.
“Ever since this New Philadelphia was established, everybody has known or knew it was a special place,” Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw has been on a number of committees throughout the years to help put New Philadelphia back on the map. Bradshaw is the president of the New Philadelphia Association. It’s a group of descendants and community members who came together to preserve and continue the legacy of the town.
The group has already set up a visitors center and an augmented reality tour as well as signage.
An archaeological dig was done on the site to collect and preserve what was left of the original town, with some of the remaining artifacts making their way to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. New Philadelphia has also gone on to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, named a National Historic Landmark, and last year it received its biggest designation yet.
On Dec. 29, the New Philadelphia National Historic Site became the 424th national park in the nation. Learning that New Philadelphia would be joining places like the Grand Canyon with this major designation was a welcome surprise, said McWorter.
“This story is really the story of a man and a woman who loved their family,” he said. “And did what you would hope people would do for their family. Because they were situated at a particular point in history in a particular situation as African Americans. It symbolizes something that is way beyond the individual reality of a family. It's really a biopsy of a people.”
This designation was years in the making.
Mike Ward is the deputy regional director for operations and facilities in the Midwest region for the National Park Service. Typically, national parks are made through an Antiquities Act or an Act of Congress. New Philadelphia was different. Instead, it was placed in an omnibus bill.
The park service is still in the early planning stages of what they have in store for the site.
But Ward said the New Philadelphia Association has made the job easier.
“There's already a visitor experience there that's very strong that people appreciate,” Ward said. “Depending on what you're looking for in a site like that, we're going to be fine for a while, based on the fact that they've done such a tremendous job of providing a place that people can come to learn and understand.”
A new generation
The New Philadelphia National Historic Site already gets its fair share of visitors.
On a recent windy spring afternoon, a busload of 4th graders from Western Elementary School in Barry came for a field trip. The kids had just started a unit on little-known Illinois history, said teacher Jeff Fessler.
“We have history in our backyard,” he said.
The students watched a video about New Philadelphia that morning. Little did the students know that this history would take an interactive approach.
“We didn't tell them we were coming here,” Fessler said. “Right as recess ended, a bus pulled up, and we said ‘We're getting on that bus,’ and they said, ‘What? Where are we going?’ And they discovered about five minutes in they saw a sign and said, ‘We're going to see New Philadelphia!’”
Isla Maas was one of those excited students.
“When you're going [on] a field trip, you don't know what to expect,” Maas said. “When you're finally here, you're just like, what's gonna happen? What are we gonna do? And then you look around and you just see fun. And you think about what's been in the past and how they were, how they worked and how they lived.”
Gerald McWorter wants to continue to see the next generation of kids with this much excitement about his great-great-grandparents story now that it has made its way to the national stage.
“That's the wonder and joy of what's possible with young people who are open and not conditioned by the prejudice and weakness of older people,” McWorter said. “And that's one of the interesting things about the new Philadelphia Story is that it really is spreading.”
He said one thing he no longer has to worry about is New Philadelphia being forgotten.
“The National Park Service is in the ‘forever business,’” McWorter said. “So while New Philadelphia had a moment where it could have gone away and been forgotten, now it will never be forgotten.”
The park service is still in the process of securing the rest of the land that made up New Philadelphia. The park service will also hold community conversations with stakeholders.