December 6, 2020

Free Frank

Free Frank McWorter – Founder of New Philadelphia, Illinois

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History there was a formerly enslaved Black man named “Free” Frank McWorter who was born around August 11, 1777 in Union, South Carolina and went on to become the 1st African American who founded an incorporated town in the United States of AmericaNew Philadelphia, Illinois.

Born to a mother named Juda (Judith) who was kidnapped from an unknown West African country and sold during the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. After her capture, she’d become pregnant, and it is recorded that the father of her soon to be first generation African American child was the man who purchased her, a white slave owner by the name of George McWorter, sometimes spelled McWhorter.

When Frank was born, he was enslaved because his mother was enslaved, according to the womb law. It didn’t matter who the father was, white or black.

It was some time when Frank was old enough to work that slave owner McWorter moved away from South Carolina and went to Kentucky. There was where he would lease out his own son to work for other white people in the area who needed him. George McWorter made money off of Frank’s labor this way, but even though Frank would provide his slave owner (father) with money, he was also learning extra skills that got him paid extra money that he didn’t give to his slave owner (father).

Frank was saving that money. As a matter of fact, he knew exactly why he was saving every cent he got. He was going to get his freedom someday. This alone reveals the relationship that he had with his slave owner father. It wasn’t good. He was property, son or no son.

There was a time George McWorter had to leave the farm for a while, and he left Frank in charge of it. Well, it was during this time that he began producing saltpeter. Saltpeter was very much needed and was in great demand at the time for gun powder and things of that nature for times of war, so Frank supplied it – not for free, of course. His saltpeter operation that he’d created himself was the biggest start of his entrepreneurship.

It was around this time that he’d already fallen in love with a woman who was enslaved named Lucy. He worked and saved for years before he had enough money to purchase her freedom. It was crucial that he purchase her freedom before he purchased his. The reason goes back to the womb law.

Lucy was pregnant with his child. In order to not have anymore children born into slavery, (they’d already conceived multiple that were already of working age), he would have to get around the womb law so his children from there on out would be born free. That means he had to purchase Lucy’s freedom from her slave owner. He did that for $800, the equivalent of almost $20,000 in the current year of 2020.

She gave birth to their child named Squire after she became free, and it was their first child born a free African American baby in 1817. A couple years later, he bought his own freedom and renamed himself Free Frank. It was a happy time, but there was still work to be done.

What is so ironic about the name Free Frank that he gave himself is that not only was it a representation of who he now was – a free man and he declared it with his name – but could it have also been a reminder of how he had to free one of his older children named Frank?

Frank was his older child who had escaped to Canada. He may have been free, but he was still in much danger as a fugitive due to the Fugitive slave laws. If found, he was still to be enslaved. Therefore, Free Frank had to free his son by selling his saltpeter production operation in exchange for his son’s freedom from his slave owner.

Finally, his son Frank was free. This was in 1829. By then, Frank and Lucy had two more children who were born free, and one who had his freedom purchased. There were still other children they had to purchase out of slavery, but without the saltpeter operation, the money wasn’t going to flow in like it was. Therefore, the whole free family moved to Illinois.

They began farming for themselves, and in 1836, Free Frank had an idea. He decided to buy a plot of land, 80 acres to be exact, from the government for less than he purchased his own freedom! He purchased the land for $100, which is about $3000 in this current year of 2020.

After the purchase, he split the land up into 144 lots, built his own home on one of the lots and sold the rest to anyone who wanted to pay live in the new community – black or white. Because of this, Free Frank became the 1st African American founder of a town in the United States of America, and he called it New Philadelphia.

Not only was New Philadelphia, Illinois the 1st Black-founded town in America, but it was the first Black- founded integrated (black and white) and incorporated municipality.

With all of this, Free Frank knew he needed more rights, the same rights that white men had. Even in Illinois, he wasn’t afforded many of the same rights because he had no legal name. Therefore, he made it legal by going to the Illinois legislature. They let him have it. His legal name became Frank McWorter.

Eventually, despite the dangers of being re-enslaved by continuously traveling back and forth as a free, business man, back and forth to Kentucky, he ended up freeing all of his grown children, purchasing their freedom.

Free Frank McWorter lived his life purchasing something that meant more than anything else – freedom, and he died on September 7, 1854, after freeing over 15 of his relatives from slavery.

Little Known Facts About Free Frank McWorter

  • On the 1850 census, 4 years before his death, his household in Pike County consisted of himself, wife and children – Julia, Sarah, Francis, Solomon, Commodore, Lucy and assumed grandchildren named Permelia and Commodore.
  • His son Squire passed away one year after he died and buried in the McWorter Cemetery in Pike County, Illinois, according to the tombstone.
  • Frank (Jr) or Francis also passed away before his father in 1851, according to family documents
  • Lucy, his wife, passed away at 99 or 100 years old in Pike County, widowed by Free Frank. Her death was in 1870. She as born in Virginia though they met in SC, meaning she was sold or taken further down south at some point in her young life.
  • New Philadelphia was a thriving town from 1836 until 1885.


Sources:

The McWorter Family records on Ancestry.com

National Museum of American History

Year: 1850; Census Place: Township 4 S 5 W, Pike, Illinois; Roll: 124; Page: 161A – Ancestry.com