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Thursday, April 17, 2003 02:20 pm

History in the making

An hour west of Springfield, researchers are piecing together what life was like in New Philadelphia, the first African-American town.

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November 8 was cold and windy, with gray, overcast skies threatening rain, but that didn't stop a group of archaeologists and volunteers from walking over a tilled field about 65 miles west of Springfield. They were looking for remnants of the past.

The field was once part of New Philadelphia, the first American town founded by a black man. Born a slave in South Carolina in 1777, Francis "Free Frank" McWorter bought his wife's freedom in 1817 with money he earned mining saltpeter in Kentucky. Two years later, he paid the same price--$800--for his own freedom. In 1831 the couple came with four of their children to Pike County, where McWorter took up farming. Several years later he bought 80 acres from the federal government for $100 and platted the land into 144 lots, which he then sold to both blacks and whites. With the proceeds, McWorter purchased freedom for 15 family members. In the spirit of brotherly love, he named the community New Philadelphia.

New Philadelphia was located about a dozen miles from the Mississippi River and the slave state of Missouri. Its black residents lived under the constant threat of being kidnapped and resold into slavery. There are several accounts that indicate New Philadelphia may have served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. McWorter's sons had guided escaped slaves to Canada.

New Philadelphia grew into a small commercial hub. The town included farmers, blacksmiths, seamstresses, and soldiers. These professions were practiced by both blacks and whites. Some white residents even married into black families. Records show Native Americans also lived there.

McWorter served as mayor of this multiracial community, and a citizens council helped him make decisions. There was no formal police department, which at the time was typical of frontier villages. Conflicts were resolved by a traveling circuit judge. Vibert White, chairman of the African-American Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, thinks Abraham Lincoln may have traveled through New Philadelphia as a lawyer.

McWorter died in 1854, at the age of 77, but his community continued to grow. By the 1860s, New Philadelphia was perhaps the most important town in the region. It had a post office, a boarding house, a wheelwright, a general store, restaurants, horse stables, a Methodist church, and a tavern. An express stagecoach line operated between Springfield and New Philadelphia.

Population peaked at 200 after the Civil War, as newly freed blacks joined the community. But once the open frontier societies began to settle down and close, racism set limits on the town's growth. In 1869, the Hannibal & Naples Railroad bypassed New Philadelphia, pushing development to the village of Barry about three miles west. In 1885 New Philadelphia became unincorporated; gradually, it disappeared. Today it's farmland. The only buildings there have been brought in from elsewhere and positioned to protect old foundations.

In November volunteers performed the second of three systematic walkovers of the site, collecting objects from the ground for further analysis. If the surveys yield significant artifacts, archeological digs will proceed. From broken pottery, shards of glass, and scraps of metal, researchers hope to piece together a picture of what life was like in New Philadelphia.

The movement to re-create New Philadelphia has been at least a decade in the making. McWorter's great-great granddaughter, Juliet E.K. Walker, had long heard stories about New Philadelphia. In 1983, Walker, then a history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published a book about her ancestor, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (University Press of Kentucky). In 1990 she started an organization to rebuild his town. When the group failed to raise funds to buy the site, Walker shifted her efforts to restoring a nearby cemetery where McWorter is buried.

In the early 1990s, Illinois constructed a four-lane highway between Hannibal and Quincy, and some area residents proposed building a rest area where New Philadelphia was located. Philip Bradshaw farms about 800 acres south of Griggsville. He had always been embarrassed to take African-American friends to the site of New Philadelphia because there was no historical marker or monument at the location. When efforts to erect the rest area failed, Bradshaw and a group of Pike County residents formed the New Philadelphia Association in 1998. The not-for-profit organization is dedicated to promoting the town's history. With Walker out of the picture (she now lives in Texas), the group wanted to form an alliance with a university or archaeological foundation. "The University of Illinois at Springfield showed interest," says Bradshaw, the association's president.

He met UIS's Vibert White at a Rotary Club meeting in 1999. Initially Bradshaw was only talking about erecting a historical marker. White, now director of the New Philadelphia Initiative, saw that as a necessity: "A marker needed to be erected at the site to tell people about this place in their backyard."

Pike County residents knew the site existed, White says, but they had long taken it for granted. Many had kin who had lived in New Philadelphia. With the renewed interest in black history and culture during the 1990s, locals decided something had to be done to preserve the story of New Philadelphia. But no one knew how to proceed.

White visited the site and met with the association. "I realized this was the greatest discovery of a lifetime--not only in reference to the ethnic history and Illinois society but to the whole history of race relations in the United States," White says. He immediately joined the cause. "Our goal is to expand awareness about New Philadelphia, not just in Pike County but throughout Illinois and the United States."

He put together a research proposal and took it to administrators in the Illinois university system. He was awarded a $50,000 grant. White knew he needed more help. The project required the expertise of authorities in various subject areas. In June 2002, he hosted a conference at UIS on researching and preserving African-American frontier settlements. The conference was a success, with more than 100 scholars attending, including Paul Shackel, professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland in College Park, and John Fleming, director of the Cincinnati Museum Center and the former director of the National Afro-American Museum in Ohio and the National Underground Railroad Museum in Kentucky. Shackel had been involved in archaeological and historical investigations at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia. Fleming and Shackel helped White to form what he calls his "cadre of experts."

Shackel already knew about New Philadelphia before White invited him to last year's conference. "This is an important site," he says. "It needs to be made part of the national public record. It's part of American history and part of public memory."

The scholars decided to undertake a survey and map out the site to determine whether significant archaeological information still existed. Permission to plow the field and perform the survey work was enthusiastically granted by the landowners, Larry and Natalie Armistead, Roger and Marsha Woods, and Darlene Arnett. The project is a cooperative effort of the New Philadelphia Association, the University of Illinois at Springfield, the Center for Heritage Resource Studies at the University of Maryland in College Park, and the Illinois State Museum. Likes Land Surveyors, Inc., and HistArc Consultants were hired to help. White also reached out to other nearby institutions. Both Hannibal-LaGrange College and Illinois College in Jacksonville joined the effort.

At the time New Philadelphia was incorporated, Illinois, though a northern state, had some southern attributes, such as codes that negated the rights of blacks. Shackel says many African-American settlements on the western frontier were sponsored by white people, and New Philadelphia arose at the right time and place: In the 1830s experimental communities were sprouting in the hinterlands. A town like New Philadelphia succeeded because it was on the periphery.

While New Philadelphia was thoroughly integrated, other mixed-race towns in America were segregated. During the 1850s, New Philadelphia was two-thirds white, one-third black. According to White, there is no record of violence. Plenty of cities had already experienced racial conflict, but New Philadelphia appears to have been a peaceful place.

New Philadelphia may be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, but this process could take six to eight months once the archaeological survey is completed. After the site gets on the National Register, the next step will be to get it designated as a National Historical Landmark. Shackel says this would lay the foundation for it to be listed with the National Park Service. All these designations would hopefully bring in money to help pay for research.

The New Philadelphia Association already has an option to purchase the land from the Armisteads and Arnett, whose niece, Mary Kay Bennett, holds power of attorney. The Armisteads have been among the project's biggest supporters. They had bought their property because of its significance, and they want to see the site preserved. The Woods may own the land where McWorter's cabin is believed to have been located, but no one knows for sure whether McWorter or his son lived there.

Likes Land Surveyors of Barry performed the initial topographical survey, starting with the old recordings of deeds. What makes this site unique for the 1830s, says Bradshaw, is that the community was surveyed and laid out in streets and blocks. The streets were also named.

The archaeological survey will help fill in the blanks about who lived in New Philadelphia. Joy Beasley and Tom Gwaltney of HistArc Consultants in Maryland devised the fieldwork procedures based on their experiences with other projects in the eastern United States. New Philadelphia Association members provided local goods, services, and logistical support. Lynn Fisher, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and Terrance Martin, curator of anthropology at the Illinois State Museum, recruited approximately a dozen volunteers, who were divided into teams of two or three at the beginning of each day. The teams then walked over the site's designated areas, flagging the locations of all artifacts. These spots were then examined by others, who assigned a number to each item, logged a brief description, and individually bagged every artifact with this information. Finally, maps were drawn after entering the information into an electronic positioning system.

In November volunteers collected more than 4,000 artifacts. Last month they found another 2,369 objects. Everyone has been surprised by the high numbers. According to Bradshaw, the ground had been farmed for years and no one knew what would be found. With few exceptions, the artifacts appeared to be in the same place they were discarded.

Among these artifacts were broken ceramics, broken glass (both vessels and window panes), a toy teacup, a porcelain doll's head and arm, slate pencils, shell buttons made from local freshwater mussels, brick fragments, and iron nails and horseshoes. The artifacts were taken to the Illinois State Museum's Research and Collections Center in Springfield, where, under the guidance of Martin, volunteers spent more than 200 hours washing and preparing them for analysis.

Approximately one-third of the collection consists of prehistoric items--very few finished tools, but many large pieces of waste flakes. Large cutting tools and a few broken spear points are the most notable discoveries. "Nobody expected to find this amount of prehistoric material," Martin says.

Except for the chipped stone artifacts and animal remains, which will be studied at the museum, all of the items will be sent to the University of Maryland, where they will be analyzed in detail. Once the objects have been identified and dated, they will be catalogued and entered into a computerized geographic information system. The result will show where the town was settled and where its population was concentrated. The artifacts will also give a sense of the community as a whole. We will be able to see how it developed over time, which part was settled first and which part disappeared first. "The artifacts will be a link to the people living on the landscape and show how they lived," says Shackel.

While New Philadelphia was on the western frontier, much of the material is similar to what would be found in towns located close to ports on the east coast. That's because New Philadelphia was on trade routes and its citizens acquired the most recent and fashionable objects, such as fine china and tea sets.

Martin says it's also vital to track down the relatives of people who lived in New Philadelphia, because they may know stories that provide a living link to the past.

"It's important to place the artifacts in a historical context through oral histories and documentation," he says. "This will make the archaeological record that much stronger."

White cautions that right now we have only an overview of the town. The initial surveys will guide future work. Finding artifacts in undisturbed contexts will provide better information about who lived at each site. Martin lists facts that might be discovered: socioeconomic status, utilitarian activities, cooking and refuse disposal practices, purchasing and consumption habits.

There's now a lot of interest in New Philadelphia, and the challenge will be to keep the momentum going.

"It's important for people to become involved," White says. "There's no other project close to this in the United States. It's important for local people to take pride and to get involved. A lot of good can come from this."

The project may ultimately become an engine for economic growth, helping the area's depressed economy. Perhaps the rebirth of New Philadelphia will signal a rebirth in the community.

Over the next year White will be trying to raise $500,000, in part to purchase the property so that careful research can continue. Ideally, he would like to build a lab so all work could be done on site.

The New Philadelphia Association wants to reseed the property. As a good steward, it shouldn't leave the land exposed to the elements. The association would like to work with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to plant the lots and streets with different grasses and vegetation native to the area in the 1830s. According to Bradshaw, when the town was platted in the 1800s, surveyors also did a foliage survey, recording what trees and plants were growing there.

White would like building sites to be marked by their foundations and to construct replicas of some houses. He says the intent is not so much to re-create the town as to re-capture what the town was about.

"This is America at its best," White says. "People are coming together to work as one and to share history. This shows passion and a love of country, state, and county." He believes participants have become more secure in their knowledge of what it means to be American. Like New Philadelphia, "this project crosses borders."

For more information or to get involved in the project, contact Dr. Vibert White at 217-206-7419.