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By DAVID CAMPHOUSE
On Monday, Sept. 13, the New Philadelphia Association celebrated Free Frank McWorter, who in 1836 was the first African American to plat and register a town in the United States. The celebration took place at the New Philadelphia town site, located between Barry and Baylis, and was attended by dozens of residents, elected officials and descendants of McWorter.
Sept. 13 is celebrated as Free Frank Freedom Day, according to New Philadelphia Executive Director Marynel Corton, because Frank McWorter, who was an enslaved person, purchased his freedom in Kentucky and became “Free Frank” on that day 202 years ago.
“We are doing it honor of the day he bought his freedom in 1819,” Corton said.
This event celebrating his freedom coincides with the Pike County Bicentennial Celebration and the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Month.
Another reason for the celebration’s timing, according to Corton, is that the New Philadelphia site is being considered by the U.S. Congress for inclusion in the National Park system.
“We thought it was a timely year to start the celebration since there is currently a bill moving through Congress that would make New Philadelphia a unit of the National Park Service,” Corton said. “With the bill in Congress, we are making a push to get the word out about New Philadephia and Frank McWorter.”
The event’s keynote speaker, retired Brigadier General Donald L. Scott, stressed the importance of keeping McWorter’s story alive. Scott credited the work of the New Philadelphia Association for their work to preserve the New Philadelphia town site and to spread the word of McWorter’s life and accomplishments.
“The New Philadelphia Association – under the leadership of Phil Bradshaw, the McWorter family and other board members – has done America a great service by resurrecting this story,” Scott said.
Scott went on to say that the story of McWorter provides an opportunity for Americans to reflect on, and learn from, the country’s legacy of slavery and racial injustice.
“This story is important, because it doesn’t shy away from all the bad stuff that slavery inflicted, not just on black Americans, but on the soul of America,” Scott said.
Pike County’s Illinois State Representative C.D. Davidsmeyer was also on hand at Free Frank Freedom Day to honor the McWorter family and celebrate the work of the New Philadelphia Association. According to Davidsmeyer, McWorter’s inclusive vision for New Philadelphia serves as an important model of tolerance and civility in today’s politically polarized America.
“It was a town, not just made up of freed slaves, but people of all colors and walks of life,” Davidsmeyer said. “It’s an example of what we should be. Most of us already are, but we’ve got some work to do.”
Davidsmeyer also emphasized the important role that Illinois played in the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War.
“It’s a huge part of American history, and it happened right here in free Illinois,” Davidsmeyer said. “Illinois has led the nation in a lot of ways. The fact that Illinois and Pike County had a space for McWorter to stand up is amazing.”
Pike County is also currently hosting the Illinois Freedom Project’s travelling exhibit, highlighting African American history in Illinois.
“The Freedom Project is an educational display of early Illinois African American trailblazers,” Corton said. “In Barry, for the exhibit, we’re adding information on Free Frank and New Philadelphia.”
The Illinois Freedom Project exhibit will be housed at the Barry Apple Festival headquarters on the 700 block of Bainbridge Street through this Friday, Sept. 17.
For more information on New Philadelphia or the Illinois Freedom Project, contact Corton at 217-335-2716, firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information may also be found on the New Philadelphia Association Facebook page.