A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A town founded by a former slave resurfaces in Illinois.
There used to be a lot more trees on this low-hilled Illinois farmland rolling eastward from the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, settlers cleared most of the forest, and since then it's been farmed continuously or returned to prairie grass. I'm aware of the lack of leafy protection as my skin tingles in the intense, high-noon sun and archaeologists complain that exposed soil quickly bakes into a cementlike hardness, making their work slow and difficult. Paul Shackel of the University of Maryland is giving me a tour of the excavated remains of New Philadelphia, a nineteenth-century frontier town and the first in America to be founded by an African American, a former slave known as Free Frank McWorter.
That gives it historical status. But for archaeologists, New Philadelphia is compelling because its population was unique, too: a multi-racial mix of skilled laborers, farmers, and merchants living together at a time when segregation ruled, and when most free blacks lived in urban areas. Born in antebellum times and gone by the Jim Crow era, New Philadelphia evolved from a small settlement of just a few families on the very edge of the United States to a bustling market town that met its demise when the railroad passed it by.
Shackel, along with Chris Fennell of the University of Illinois-Urbana and Terrance Martin of the Illinois State Museum, wants to put New Philadelphia back on the map, and they are not alone. Funded by a $224,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a three-year field school, the archaeologists have the support of a vigorous community organization and descendants of former residents. The hope is that one day New Philadelphia will be a nationally recognized historical site that draws ongoing federal funding for research and tourists with dollars to spend in the local communities.
A week before my visit, the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council approved nominating New Philadelphia for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places because of its archaeological significance. (Free Frank's grave site, on a lush hill overlooking the highway, has been on the list since 1998.) A 45-day federal review began in early June. Shackel tells me, "The review should be pretty smooth sailing. By the time this article hits newsstands, New Philadelphia should be on the National Register."
Making New Philadelphia nationally known may be the public aim of the project, but the archaeological goal is to see if the town's material remains reflect its unusual racial mix. Deed, census, and tax records give researchers some idea of who lived where in New Philadelphia. By comparing the plant and animal remains, domestic and commercial goods, and how households from different ethnic backgrounds used their lots, they aim to reconstruct the economic and social dynamics of the frontier town.
There are many takes on New Philadelphia. It was a bastion of racial equality; a place where blacks and whites lived together, but not equally; the very picture of triumphant capitalism; the embodiment of abolitionist activism. Supporters of these disparate views, however, agree that New Philadelphia deserves wider recognition.
Jennifer Pinkowski is associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.