In deepening my knowledge of myself and my bloodlines, I stumbled across a pretty sugnificant member of my family tree who also happens to be an integral part of Black History; my Great (x4) Grandfather Free Frank McWhorter.
Free Frank McWorter was born into slavery in 1777 South Carolina, but bought his freedom in 1836 and became the first black man to found a town in the United States (New Philadelphia, Illinois). Even though the town is currently abandoned, a local history group and some colleges did some digging and registered the town on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. The town also became a National Historic Landmark in 2009.
In 1795 Frank’s white master, George McWhorter – a Scots-Irish plantation owner - moved to Pulaski County, Kentucky and took Frank to build and later manage his holdings there. Frank tended the farm, but McWhorter also leased him to work for neighbors as a laborer. From being hired out, Frank learned business skills and earned more money than his master required him to hand over. After McWhorter moved to Tennessee, he continued to have Frank manage his farm in Kentucky. Frank used his savings to create a saltpeter production operation, for which there was considerable demand during the War of 1812.
In 1799 Frank married Lucy, an enslaved African American on a neighboring plantation. They had four children, all born into slavery. By 1817 Frank had earned enough money to buy Lucy from her master for $800, and give her freedom. Two years later in 1819 he bought his own freedom at the same price, earning him the name Free Frank. In 1829 Free Frank traded his saltpeter plant in exchange for the freedom of his eldest son, also called Frank, who had fled to Canada and was a fugitive. By this time he and Lucy also had three freeborn children: Squire, Commodore and Lucy Ann.
In 1830 Frank, Lucy and their four free children moved to Pike County, Illinois. Just four years after moving to Illinois, Free Frank was able to purchase his son Solomon’s freedom for $500 with the money the family earned from the sale of its agricultural products. The family continued to cultivate their 160—acre farm holdings, and in 1836, they made a critical land acquisition of five adjacent tracts totaling 280 acres for a purchase price of more than $360. In 1836, under the Illinois Town Plat Act, Free Frank established the community of New Philadelphia with 144 lots, two principal streets and several alleys, all named by him.The town site, which was divided into 144 lots, was registered with government authorities in 1836.
McWorter established residence in New Philadelphia with his family and sold other lots to new residents. Both blacks and whites settled there and supported an integrated school. Free Frank also planned for the building of a private school to be called Free Will Baptist Seminary that would also serve as a church but the school never materialized.
In 1837, Free Frank petitioned the Illinois legislature (as was required) so that he could officially take the surname McWorter. In that same year, the legislation was passed to “make ‘Frank McWorter’ his legal name.” This technicality enabled him to have certain rights normally reserved for white men in Illinois. He could bring lawsuits to court, and could legally marry his wife of over 40 years. But, he still could not vote.
Frank WcWorter lived most of the rest of his life in western Illinois, with intervals in Kentucky before the American Civil War to buy freedom for his three grown children and grandchildren left in Kentucky. On each trip he risked capture by unscrupulous slave traders, despite his legally free status.
McWorter died in 1854; by that time he had bought the freedom of eight more of his relatives. Through his work, he gained freedom for 16 members of his family. His heirs used his inheritance to free seven more relatives. McWorter’s gravesite, located near Barry, Illinois, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A portion of I-72 in Pike County was designated the Frank McWorter Memorial Highway.