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Thursday, July 15, 2004 10:53 pm

Revisionist history

“Free Frank” descendant takes aim at New Philadelphia excavation project

A former University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor has denounced recent efforts to recreate what is considered the country's first town founded by an African American.

Prominent black history scholar Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker charges that those now leading a federally funded archaeological dig in Pike County, Ill., are "distorting" history and "discrediting" her research.

"I am offended as a historian who has spent her entire life trying to recreate African-American historical experiences and correct misinterpretations that have existed," says Walker, who is founder and director of the Center for Black Business History, Entrepreneurship and Technology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Walker bases her claims on her 1983 book, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier, which she published during her 25-year tenure at U. of I.

The book tells the story of Francis "Free Frank" McWorter, a black slave from Kentucky who earned enough money mining saltpeter to buy his freedom [Roberta Codemo, "History in the making," April 17, 2003].

McWorter purchased, subdivided, and sold several acres of land in western Illinois, between the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, and in 1836 named the area New Philadelphia. He used the money to buy the freedom of more than a dozen of his family members.

Walker, a great-great-granddaughter of "Free Frank," says her ancestor was a black entrepreneur who "hoped to create a place for blacks to live without the kind of hostility that existed."

She says this runs contrary to claims made by an archaeological team that recently concluded the first of three planned five-week excavations of the 42-acre site, which is now farmland.

The excavation is being funded by a $226,500 grant from the National Science Foundation awarded in January to Dr. Paul Shackel of the University of Maryland. He is working in collaboration with UIS, the Illinois State Museum, and the nonprofit New Philadelphia Association.

Walker provided a copy of Shackel's grant application to Illinois Times. In it, Shackel calls the history of New Philadelphia "a chronicle of racial uplift" that "is about the success of an African-American family and their ability to survive and prosper in a racist society."

Shackel writes in the application that Free Frank "encouraged other African Americans and [sic] as well as those of European descent to move to the town and create a racially integrated community."

Walker alleges Shackel based his grant application on false premises. "They are presenting the town as a utopia of black and white relations," she says, "which is totally incorrect."

Shackel, who was in Springfield earlier this week, rejects the charge. "Most historical archaeology of this time period has centered on slavery," says Shackel. "This was a story about achievement, about a family creating success."

Three archaeological investigators, joined by 12 college students from across the country, are currently examining their findings at the Illinois State Museum Research and Collections Center on East Ash Street.

"We're excited about the potential of what's here," says Shackel, who hopes to add New Philadelphia to the National Register of Historic Places.

Dr. Christopher Fennell, of U. of I., says their discoveries could help demonstrate the level of integration in a town that at its peak had 200 people, one-third of whom were black.

"We're looking for evidence of interaction among people of different ethnic backgrounds," Fennell says.

But Walker remains unimpressed.

"So what?" she says. "What's the significance? Nothing from the artifacts can show blacks and whites lived happily together."

Walker complains further that the archaeologists have failed to properly cite her scholarship, never invited her to participate in their project, and have made several factual errors regarding the history of New Philadelphia.

For instance, she says, they claim "Free Frank" incorporated New Philadelphia. But Walker says that would have been impossible as state law at the time prohibited blacks from incorporating towns.

Shackel and Fennel contend their research is sound, and lament that Walker "declined offers" to join the project.

Philip Bradshaw, president of New Philadelphia Association and a farmer who lives 15 miles east of the historic site, agrees, saying he was "surprised" by the ongoing dispute.

"We hoped it would be a process to bring people together," says Bradshaw, who hopes the project becomes a draw for national tourism, "and not separate people."

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