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"A Freedom Story" — Former U of I Professor on Helping Establish a National Park

by Jackson Thompson

Dr. Gerald McWorter can trace his legacy to the first American town founded by an African American. He has also found an impact of his own in helping establish it as a national park in late 2022.

“So when you become a national park, you cease to be part of the local story,” McWorter said, “You become part of the nation’s story and national history.” As descendants of New Philadelphia’s founder Frank McWorter, Gerald McWorter’s family grew up with the story: in the year 1836, recently-freed Frank McWorter established the township and bought the freedom of 15 of his family members. Though the town had seen ups and downs and eventually dissolved in 1885, an active effort was maintained to keep the history alive.

A history that McWorter identified as a different story than other African American legacies. “There’s sites of freedom people: Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, et cetera,” McWorter explains, “And they are sites of oppression, sites that represent lynching, and so on. This is a freedom story.”

The McWorter family has been involved in recognizing the site’s historical prevalence for decades. McWorter’s own cousin led the movement to recognize Frank McWorter’s grave as a historic site — an honor that had been granted to only two graves before in Illinois: those of Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. “That really became a way of identifying our family history with national history,” McWorter said.

Today, the New Philadelphia National Historic Site is available for the public to visit in Pike County. On the future of the site now with National Park status, McWorter said, “Because we think that the economic development is going to impact the local population. Hopefully, that'll mean more jobs. Hopefully, that'll mean a psychological impact on the self image of the young people who are going to high school and college in the area.”

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