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Lost Illinois town offers lessons for race relations in America, expert says

Chris Fennell & Co.
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Illinois archeologist Christopher Fennell, far right, will lead a sixth year of digging at New Philadelphia beginning in late May. Students who will aid in the project, from left, include George Calfas, a senior in anthropology; Annelise Morris, a junior in anthropology; and Kati Fay, a graduate student in archaeology.


Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama delivered what many consider the signature speech of his candidacy last month in Philadelphia, pleading for straightforward talk about race as ethnic rumblings dogged his historic bid to become the nation’s first black president.

Meanwhile, back in Obama’s home state, planning was under way for another summer of work to unearth remains of New Philadelphia, a lost western Illinois town where blacks and whites lived together in peace and freedom a quarter century before the Civil War broke the grip of slavery.

“The town’s history provides a very timely story that’s now in the press with Sen. Obama’s theme of having a meaningful conversation about race,” said University of Illinois archaeologist Christopher Fennell. “We’ve been having that conversation for years now with regard to New Philadelphia.”

In late May, Fennell will lead a sixth year of research in a remote field between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers where, in 1836, freed slave Frank McWorter founded the earliest-known U.S. town planned and legally registered by a black man.

New Philadelphia
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View an audio slide show about the archaeological work done at New Philadelphia, a lost western Illinois town where blacks and whites lived together in peace and freedom a quarter of a century before the Civilk War broke the grip of slavery.

So far, the project has uncovered more than 65,000 artifacts and remains of a dozen houses and businesses from the integrated frontier town that grew to about 160 people – a third black and two-thirds white – before it began to slowly fade away when it was bypassed by the railroad in 1869.

Researchers say their findings reveal a community that was generations ahead of its time, with blacks and whites living side-by-side and an integrated schoolhouse that opened 70 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed segregation.

Studies also have uncovered no signs of burned buildings or other evidence of racial violence in New Philadelphia, despite ethnic tensions that engulfed the Civil War era and a major slave trading post just 25 miles away in Hannibal, Mo.

“I think the town’s story is very uplifting,” said Kati Fay, a U. of I. doctoral student in archaeology who will manage an on-site lab this summer. “It’s a different example of race relations from that era that you don’t hear about very often. You hear about the race riots and the lynch mobs. You don’t hear about the races living together, apparently quite successfully,” Fay said.

Known as “Free Frank,” McWorter was a slave for a Kentucky man who allowed him to earn wages in his spare time. He saved, bought a small farm and earned enough money to buy first his wife’s freedom, then his own.

Later, he traded his Kentucky assets for a large parcel of land in western Illinois, where he developed a prosperous farm that enabled him to buy the freedom of his slave-born children and other relatives. He then bought more land and established New Philadelphia, giving free black families a place to buy homes and become independent.

His vision of an integrated community soon attracted whites from around the region – forward-thinking immigrants who very likely shared his dream, Fennell said.

“He’d probably be a politician of the highest rank in today’s society,” he said. “His social skills were extraordinary when you look at all of the things he was able to negotiate.”

“It’s not a simple story of harmony,” he said. “It’s even greater than that, a story of overcoming adversity. It was an incredible struggle for freedom, not just by African Americans but also by European-American families who lived with them.”

In 2005, New Philadelphia was named to the National Register of Historic Places, joining about 80,000 sites across the country deemed worthy of preservation. McWorter’s nearby gravesite has been on the national register since 1988.

The town site and cemetery have now been nominated for National Historic Landmark status, held by a select group of about 2,400 sites such as Abraham Lincoln’s home and tomb in nearby Springfield that are considered vital to the nation’s heritage.

A ruling is expected later this year. Fennell says approval would help potential fundraising that ultimately could add a visitor’s center and make New Philadelphia a tourist destination.

“Everybody goes to Springfield to learn about Lincoln. This is just about 90 minutes down the road and it’s a powerful parallel story,” Fennell said.

Meanwhile, archaeological research will resume on the site in May under a second three-year grant from the National Science Foundation. The ongoing project is being led by the U. of I., DePaul University and the Illinois State Museum, working in collaboration with McWorter’s descendants, local community members and the New Philadelphia Association, a non-profit group that seeks to preserve the site and promote its history.

This year’s research will include the first aerial survey with a high-resolution thermal camera, which researchers hope will locate foundations and other buried structures that have gone undetected through digging and ground-based geophysics.

“The big advantage of the aerial survey is it’s a 42-acre town site,” Fennell said. “It’s taken us constant work on ground-based geophysics and we’ve only covered about 7 acres.”

Earlier digs beneath the farmland that ultimately buried New Philadelphia have recovered thousands of artifacts, including broken pieces of ceramics and ironware, a pewter tea set and pewter toys and molded pieces of glass used as pieces for Mancala, a traditional African game similar to backgammon.

The archaeological work builds on historical research into McWorter’s life by former U. of I. history professor Juliet Walker, McWorter’s great-great-granddaughter, and is being done in collaboration with other descendants, including U. of I. African-American studies professor Abdul Alkalimat.

“To be part of something as nationally significant as this story is, you can’t beat an education like that,” said George Calfas, a senior archaeology student at the U. of I. who will be part of this year’s 10-week research effort.

Editor’s note: To contact Christopher Fennell, call 217-244-7309; e-mail