Free Frank McWorter, the first African American to incorporate a municipality in the United States, was born enslaved in South Carolina. In 1795, McWorter’s owner moved to Kentucky and took him along to build and manage his holdings and to lease him out to work for others. McWorter used his earnings to create a successful saltpeter production operation.
By 1817, he had earned enough to buy the freedom of his wife and two years later he bought his own freedom. In 1830, McWorter and his family moved to Pike County, Illinois and in 1836 he founded the town of New Philadelphia, Illinois.
By the time of his death on September 7, 1854, McWorter had bought the freedom of 16 members of his family. McWorter’s gravesite is listed on the National Registry of Historical Places and a portion of I-72 in Pike County is designated the Frank McWorter Memorial Highway.
The New Philadelphia town site was listed on the National Registry of Historical Places in 2005 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009. McWorter’s biography, “Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier,” was published in 1983.
Free Frank McWorter (1777–September 7, 1854) was an American slave who bought his own freedom and in 1836 founded the town of New Philadelphia in Illinois; he was the first African American to found a town in the United States.
The New Philadelphia Town Site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2009.
In the late 20th century, a local history group recruited archaeologists to explore the long-abandoned town site. Teams from the University of Maryland, College Park, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and De Paul University have worked for years on research and excavations, collected data about residents from census and land records, and turned up thousands of artifacts.
In addition they have trained students at summer field schools, and published reports, articles, and books on the history of McWorter, his family and his town.
McWorter descendants donated the collected 11 volumes of documentation to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in February 2008. In addition the family donated a bronze bust of Frank McWorter by his great-great-granddaughter Shirley McWorter Moss.
Frank McWorter was born in 1777 into slavery in South Carolina to Juda, born in West Africa, abducted into slavery and transported to the colony. His father was likely her white master, George McWhorter, a Scots-Irish planter. According to family tradition, Juda had to convince McWhorter to allow his mixed-race son to live.
In 1795 McWhorter moved to Pulaski County, Kentucky and took Frank to build and later manage his holdings there. Frank tended the farm, but McWhorter also leased him to work for neighbors as a laborer. From being hired out, Frank learned business skills and earned more money than his master required him to hand over.
After McWhorter moved to Tennessee, he continued to have Frank manage his farm in Kentucky. Frank used his savings to create a saltpeter production operation, for which there was considerable demand during the War of 1812.