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Pike County's 'Free Frank' McWorter Family Donates Items to ALPLM

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[March 03, 2008]  SPRINGFIELD -- The great-great-grandchildren of "Free Frank" McWorter, the first African-American to found a town in the United States, have donated a bust and research materials in his memory to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.

"'Free Frank' afforded me the opportunity to research a challenging sculpture commission in a unique and fascinating way," said Shirley McWorter Moss, a descendant of "Free Frank" McWorter, who founded New Philadelphia in Pike County in 1836. "I drew upon many seemingly unrelated disciplines to complete the process. 'Free Frank' has again opened the door for a family member to broaden their knowledge to reach a higher level of accomplishment."

Moss is the sculptor of a bronze bust of her great-great-grandfather that was part of the donation on Thursday. The donation also includes the first 11 volumes, with additional volumes to come, of a documentary history of New Philadelphia and the McWorter family, including a three-year archaeological investigation of the community. The volumes were donated by Shirley; her brother William McWorter; cousins from fifth-generation descendents of Frank McWorter, including Gerald McWorter and Allen Kirkpatrick; and the New Philadelphia Association. In addition, Janet C. Davies, host and executive producer for "190 North" on ABC-7 in Chicago, donated a DVD copy of "Rediscovering a Pioneer's Dream," an ABC News documentary about New Philadelphia.

"The ongoing research on New Philadelphia is an important contribution to our knowledge about Frank McWorter and the town he founded," said Tom Schwartz, Illinois state historian. "This donation helps make much of that research available to a larger public audience."

Frank McWorter was born into slavery in 1777 on a plantation in Union County, S.C., and moved with his owner, George McWhorter, to Kentucky in 1795. Frank was so industrious that he was put in charge of the Kentucky operation when George moved to Tennessee. Frank married a fellow enslaved Kentuckian in 1799.

During the War of 1812 Frank McWorter started a saltpeter mining and production operation in his free time. With earnings from the saltpeter operation and by taking odd jobs from neighbors, he purchased freedom for his wife, Lucy, in 1817 and for himself in 1819. He succeeded in purchasing freedom for 16 members of his family over the years, spending approximately $14,000, the equivalent of more than $300,000 today. By doing so, he earned the nickname "Free Frank."

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Shortly after gaining his freedom, he began to invest his earnings by purchasing land in a largely undeveloped area of Pike County, where he and his family moved in 1830. He subdivided and sold tracts of land and platted and legally registered the town of New Philadelphia. He thus became the first African-American to legally found a town in the United States.

The town grew to 160 inhabitants by 1865, but a rail line through Pike County that was expected to pass through New Philadelphia was constructed along another route, and the town was dissolved in 1885. The site of the town is now covered by farmland.

"Free Frank" McWorter died in 1854, and his wife died in 1870 at 99 years of age. His grave site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 through the efforts of his great-granddaughter Thelma McWorter Kirkpatrick Wheaton and great-great-granddaughter Juliet E.K. Walker.

A collaborative project of archaeologists, historians, area communities and descendants succeeded in locating the New Philadelphia town site during 2002 and researching its history. Their efforts resulted in the New Philadelphia site being listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Today, signs along Interstate 72 in Pike County commemorate "Free Frank" McWorter and New Philadelphia. A 35-mile stretch from Griggsville to the Missouri state line was dedicated in February 2005 by Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is the state's chief historical and genealogical research facility. Its collections feature more than 12 million items pertaining to all areas of Illinois history. For more information, visit

[Text from Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum news release received from the Illinois Office of Communication and Information]

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