New Philadelphia then and now

Curriculum: American history. African American History. Archaeology and Historical Heritage Sites

Note that the National Park Service has created a lesson plan for New Philadelphia (grades 5-12) on its website: 

Note that the New Philadelphia Association has created a lesson plan for New Philadelphia on its website:

Our Lesson Objectives:
(1) To understand the founding of the town of New Philadelphia, Illinois, its existence as a racially integrated town and why it eventually declined
(2) To learn about the extraordinary efforts of several individuals to secure their own freedom and that of their family members, build a viable town and social life amid the threat of slavery.
(3) To understand the historical context of the founding of New Philadelphia by formerly enslaved African Americans and its transcendental importance in American history and African American Heritage
(4) To evaluate how archaeology can help to interpret the past
(5) To understand the concept of “descendant community”
(6) To discuss the issues and questions that were important to the descendant community as they related to the scholars involved in the New Philadelphia Project
(7) To learn about the National Register of Historic Places process
(8) To understand how national recognition, especially the National Historic Landmark designation, can help efforts to preserve the memory of historic sites today and make them available in the future
(9) To consider the importance of designating a site to preserve its memory in history
(10) To become familiar with the methodologies of oral history and archival research


New Philadelphia holds significant historical value as the first known town in the United States to have been legally platted by an African American. In 1836, during a period of intense racial tension, Frank McWorter, who purchased his own freedom from bondage, founded the town of New Philadelphia in Hadley Township in Pike County, Illinois. The town was dangerously close to slave-holding Missouri.

Documents tell us that Frank McWorter was born in slavery in South Carolina in 1777. He was taken, as a young adult, to Kentucky by his owner, George McWhorter (note the h, which Frank dropped following his freedom). There he met Lucy, a slave on a neighboring farm, whom he married. Remarkably for the time, Frank McWorter was allowed to work for wages. And he established a saltpeter works. With the money he earned, Frank McWorter bought himself, his wife and his eldest son, Young Frank, out of slavery between 1817 and 1819.

As freed slaves, Frank McWorter, Lucy, Young Frank and two other freed children moved to Illinois in 1830, leaving the other four children who remained in slavery and whose freedom he later achieved.

In 1836 Frank McWorter laid out a gridded town of about 80 acres comprised of 144 lots to sell with the intention of purchasing the freedom of the remaining enslaved members of their family. He was able to do so and eventually he bought freedom for a total of sixteen members of his family at a price that today would be over $300,000. As extraordinary as the money involved was, so too was the danger itself. The freedom of those who had been left behind was accomplished at extreme risk as it meant Frank McWorter was returning multiple times to Kentucky, facing capture by slave catchers, regardless of his manumission.

An 1850 census document shows that New Philadelphia was a racially integrated town with two-thirds of the population classified as White (European Americans) and the other third classified as Black. This reality was extremely rare for the pre-Civil War period and local descendants claim that the mixed community lived together harmoniously for several decades despite racist-inspired violence in neighboring towns like Griggsville, Alton and others. There is no evidence of racial violence having erupted in New Philadelphia or having been inflicted on the town. This peaceful situation had to be the result of constant, day-to-day social negotiations and efforts for the common good of the town.

At its peak population there were 169 people living in New Philadelphia.

Local histories suggest that the strategic location of New Philadelphia at a major geographic crossroads may have encouraged its participation as a stop along the underground railroad. This network of people and places helped to transport enslaved peoples out of slave states in the South to “free” states or Canada to the north.

The demise of New Philadelphia town appears to have been due to the racism of the railroad company that was moving east-west across the state at this latitude. The railroad company chose to incur extra financial cost so as to re-route the line north of New Philadelphia and thus impair the economic opportunities of New Philadelphia. Historical evidence as well as advanced geophysical mapping indicates absolutely no physical reason on the landscape for the detour. The line should have been constructed directly through the town to take advantage of the natural terrain and least distance among tracks. Yet the railroad, completed in 1869, clearly arches around New Philadelphia rather than following the direct route between Naples, Illinois and Hannibal, Missouri. After this detour was made around the town, census records show a population decline there, with most residents likely leaving to seek residence closer to lines of transport and emerging markets.

For more than ten years, between 2002 and 2013, a collaborative team of archaeologists, historians and local descendants of Frank McWorter worked diligently together to research New Philadelphia and preserve the memory of the McWorters and the town they founded. This was a true public archaeology and community engagement project with impeccable academic integrity.

The United States Congress put the site of New Philadelphia on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and declared it a National Historic Landmark in 2009. Efforts are underway to achieve National Park Service Site status. Already, the NRHP and NHL designations are helping to ensure that New Philadelphia is preserved as a visible testament to the extraordinary efforts of Frank McWorter and his family to achieve freedom and a decent way of life. New Philadelphia represents the success of African Americans in their struggle against racial violence, oppression and discrimination. It is a lesson for today’s fraught racial relations in America.

What made it so difficult for African Americans to purchase land and register towns like New Philadelphia during the antebellum period?
Q2. What historic sites and national historic landmarks have you visited, either in IL or elsewhere? What do you remember about them and what was their importance historically?
Q3. What does it mean to designate a historic site as a National Landmark and what does the designation confer?
Q4. How did archaeology help to expand understanding of New Philadelphia?

Watch the following 12-minute video clip titled, “Prairie Fire: Free Frank and New Philadelphia”–
Discuss the following questions based on the information from the video:
1. What is a descendant community and how do you think archaeologists and historians can engage productively with descendants in their research?

2. In what ways can oral history, archival documents and archaeological evidence provide a more comprehensive picture of the histories we study?
3. Knowing what the site was, who was there, the different activities carried out there, how would you propose to design the site as a destination for cultural heritage tourism? Would you leave it as it is with signage? Create reconstructed buildings? Which buildings/activities/stories would you highlight and prioritize in doing this?

Students will think about how they would work with a site – chosen by them for this project – to help it become a destination for cultural heritage tourism.

Read the official nomination form submitted for the New Philadelphia site to be put on the National Register of Historic Places:
Philadelphia/New%20Philadelphia%20NR%20nomination.pdf  [cut and paste entire url into your browser without spaces]
Pay close to attention specifically to the narrative description of the site and its historical importance. Using the NRHP dossier as an example, research a site that you think also has important historical value and defend your site’s worthiness for inscription on the National Register of Historic Places. Minimally, your narrative should state the following:
Where is the site located?
2. What is the current status of the site, i.e. is it still in use, abandoned, are there still structures that pertain to its original use?
3. Summarize the history of the site
4. What is the significant historical value of the site that makes it worthy of preservation and inscription.
5. Has archaeology been conducted at the site? If so, briefly describe what was found and how it relates to the site history.

Fennell, Christopher.
Fennell, Christopher. “Damaging detours: routes, racism and New Philadelphia”. Historical Archaeology 44(1): 138-154. (2010)
Fennell, Christopher. Broken Chains and Subverted Plans: Ethnicity, Race and Commodities. University Press of Florida, 2017
National Museum of African History.–1900/western-migration/free-frank-mcworter
National Park Service
National Park Service
National Park Service
National Park Service
McWorter, Gerald A. and Kate Williams-McWorter. New Philadelphia. Path Press, 2018