Saturday, February 16, 2019

The story of "Free Frank" McWorter who paid for his own freedom from slavery, found his family and freed them too.

"Free Frank" McWorter, Illinois' most successful Negro pioneer, could have accomplished little without the support of an influential Pike County political figure. Frank McWorter planned his freedom for many years. As a slave, he saved money, purchased his wife’s freedom, and then negotiated his own from a Kentucky planter in 1819 at age forty-two.
Solomon McWorter, son of Free Frank
(Civil War Era Photo)
Soon after he purchased his oldest son Solomon. In 1830 McWorter migrated with free family members to the Illinois frontier near the Mississippi River, where he established a farm and the community of New Philadelphia. Over his lifetime he was able to purchase his remaining thirteen family members.

Free Frank turned his 160 acres of Illinois farmland into a cash operation by transporting his produce to the Mississippi River for sale. With the purchase of additional acreage he established the first known town platted by a Negro, naming it New Philadelphia. Although the town prospered for decades, New Philadelphia later declined. Over time he sold lots to both whites and Negroes. Before the Civil War, New Philadelphia had become one of the stations along the Underground Railroad for shepherding escaped slaves to Canada.

McWorter died before the Civil War having never experienced the benefits of citizenship that came with the Fourteenth Amendment. Though living in the free state of Illinois, the family was never entirely safe from slave catchers (the reverse underground railroad capturing freed slaves and selling them back into slavery) who moved along the Mississippi River before the Civil War. McWorter could not protect himself from white claim-jumpers because the black laws prohibited the testimony of a Negro in a court case involving a white man. Only with the aid of powerful white friends could "Free Frank" retain his property.

The McWorters remained in the community of New Philadelphia for generations as farmers and artisans.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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