The Migration of Free Frank McWorter

Although most of the two million enslaved people in the United States had few options, they often took risks to shape their own lives and gain freedom. 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. Soon after he purchased his oldest son. 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.

The Free Frank McWorter Family

Though living in the free state of Illinois, the family was never entirely safe from slave catchers who moved along the Mississippi River before the Civil War. The McWorters remained in the community of New Philadelphia for generations as farmers and artisans.

Marie Thomas, great-granddaughter of Free Frank, near New Philadelphia, Illinois, early 1900s

Marie Thomas, great-granddaughter of Free Frank, near New Philadelphia, Illinois, early 1900s

Courtesy of Pamela and Sheena Franklin

African American man with horse near New Philadelphia, Illinois, 1800s

African American man with horse near New Philadelphia, Illinois, 1800s

Courtesy of Pamela and Sheena Franklin

Lucy McWorter, Free Frank’s wife, 1800s

Lucy McWorter, Free Frank’s wife, 1800s

Courtesy of  Pamela and Sheena Franklin

Solomon McWorter, son of Free Frank, 1800s

Solomon McWorter, son of Free Frank, 1800s

Courtesy of Pamela and Sheena Franklin

Lucy Ann McWorter Vond, daughter of Free Frank, and her husband, near New Philadelphia, Illinois, 1800s

Lucy Ann McWorter Vond, daughter of Free Frank, and her husband, near New Philadelphia, Illinois, 1800s

Courtesy of Pamela and Sheena Franklin

After Free Frank McWorter’s death, his son Solomon sold some of the family land to purchase freedom for Charlotte, Free Frank’s granddaughter.

Receipt for purchase of Charlotte Cowan, granddaughter of Free Frank, from slavery, around 1857

Receipt for purchase of Charlotte Cowan, granddaughter of Free Frank, from slavery, around 1857

Courtesy of Illinois State Museum, Doug Carr, photographer

Chair, made by Solomon McWorter, 1800s

Chair, made by Solomon McWorter, 1800s

Free Frank McWorter’s son Solomon resided near the community of New Philadelphia. He was a farmer and cabinetmaker, as well as the inventor of an evaporator to extract syrup from sorghum. Business receipts indicate that he had a cabinetmaking firm with his white partner, James Pottle. Solomon made this chair for his grandchild.

Lent by Gerald McWorter, Great-Grandson of Solomon McWorter

The Town of New Philadelphia Near the Mississippi River

Free Frank McWorter 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 founded and platted by an African American, naming it New Philadelphia. Although the town prospered for decades, New Philadelphia later declined. Over time he sold lots to both whites and African Americans.

McWorter died before the Civil War having never experienced the benefits of citizenship that came with the Fourteenth Amendment.

 

Map showing New Philadelphia, Atlas Map of Pike County, Illinois, Davenport, 1872

Map showing New Philadelphia, Atlas Map of Pike County, Illinois, Davenport, 1872

Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Illinois State Museum, Doug Carr, photographer

Reproduction of painting portraying the neighborhood of New Philadelphia, by Thelma McWorter, 1900s

Reproduction of painting portraying the neighborhood of New Philadelphia, by Thelma McWorter, 1900s

Courtesy of Family Archives of Allen J. Kirkpatrick