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New Philadelphia is Illinois’ newest national park — now one of over 30 sites dedicated to Black history in the U.S.

Aerial photograph of New Philadelphia townsite.

CHAMPAIGN — Gerald McWorter — a professor in African American Studies at the University of Illinois — said he grew up hearing stories about his great-great-grandfather, Frank McWorter. 

“Free Frank,” a former slave who bought his own freedom, founded New Philadelphia, Illinois in 1836. The town was an incorporated town for fifty years — and a stop along the Underground Railroad.

The National Park Service recognized Western Illinois’ New Philadelphia as the nation’s newest national park in December of 2022. The site brings the history of African Americans fighting for freedom to the forefront in Illinois, McWorter said. 

“We all are part of history,” McWorter said. “This is a way of sort of waking up the historical consciousness of the American people.” 

Gerald and his wife Kate Williams, also a professor at the University of Illinois, wrote a book in 2018 titled “New Philadelphia.” The book is just one part of the McWorter family’s decades of work telling the story of Frank and New Philadelphia.

“Frank McWorter bought the freedom of 16 enslaved individuals at a cost of $14,000, a sum equal to hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s currency,” the National Park Service wrote. 

New Philadelphia, along with the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, is part of the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area where people can visit historic sites linked to President Lincoln’s life and work. 

McWorter says that most people don’t realize Black people were essential to helping other Black people to escape slavery using the Underground Railroad. He says the New Philadelphia site can help change that. 

“The story of freedom is not only a story of people who are helping Black people, it’s Black people themselves active and engaged in the freedom journey,” McWorter said.

The National Park Service’s designation of New Philadelphia as a national park will help bring in tourist revenue to the local area, McWorter said. Now, he said researchers will continue to study artifacts and records from the town to learn more about its impact. 

The history of New Philadelphia helps paint a portrait of how future generations can work together to create a better nation, McWorter said. 

“If new Philadelphia was possible, then maybe this country is possible,” McWorter said. 

Farrah Anderson is a journalist and student at the University of Illinois. Follow her on Twitter @farrahsoa.

Farrah Anderson

Farrah Anderson

Farrah Anderson is a student at the University of Illinois studying journalism. At Illinois Public Media, Anderson works as a general assignment reporter and produces and hosts the 217 Today podcast.

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