updated 6/28/2004 1:15:50 PM ET 2004-06-28T17:15:50

In a remote pasture in western Illinois, researchers have been digging up buttons, porcelain and other artifacts from a former frontier village launched by a freed slave.

It’s the earliest known town incorporated by a black man in the country, and researchers want it named a national historic site. Crews will wrap up their first archaeological dig this weekend in the field, located about 30 miles southeast of Quincy.

Historians say Frank McWorter launched the integrated town of New Philadelphia in 1836, a quarter century before the Civil War.

American hero
“’Free Frank’ is every bit as much an American hero as Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King,” said Vibert White, a history professor and project consultant.

Researchers have been combing the plowed field for nearly two years. They uncovered thousands of artifacts, including nails, buttons and pieces of broken glass, ceramics and brick, said Paul Shackel, the project’s lead archaeologist.

They started digging deeper last month, using a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant. The grant also will pay for digs the next two summers and a laboratory analysis of the artifacts, said Shackel, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Heritage Resource Studies.

So far, the excavation has turned up traces of about a third of New Philadelphia’s 30 or so residences, as well as trash pits, which could provide clues to dietary habits and lifestyles, Shackel said.

He said buttons and thimbles could offer a glimpse of household activities, while fragments of porcelain dolls and dishes could show whether the village traded with other cities or was shut off because of its roots.

“All of this will eventually tell the story of New Philadelphia — how people lived their everyday life. Our goal is to show how an integrated community survived. By the third summer, we should have a real nice view of what this town looked like and how people interacted,” Shackel said.

A slave from Kentucky
McWorter, whose grave is near the lost town, 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 his freedom, as well as his wife’s.

He later traded his Kentucky farm for another farm in western Illinois that prospered. 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 the newly freed slaves a place to buy homes and become independent.

New Philadelphia grew to about 170 people — 35 percent black — and began to slowly fade away when it was bypassed by the railroad in 1869, Shackel said.

Supporters of the town want it to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ultimately, they want to make it part of the National Park Service, which would require an act of Congress.

Rep. Ray LaHood, a Republican who represents the area, has followed the project and would consider sponsoring the town’s addition to the park system, said spokesman Tim Butler.

White, who headed the project until he moved to the University of Central Florida last year, thinks New Philadelphia’s legacy could attract 25,000 to 100,000 visitors a year.

“When you think of black people in that era, you think of slavery and hostility. This town was focused on Americanism, trying to create a society free of ill feelings toward any race,” White said.

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