As a pioneer on the Kentucky and Illinois frontier, Frank "Free Frank" McWhorter coped with the hostile and desolate conditions of remote backwoods as both a slave and freedman. Heralded for his dedication as a slave, Free Frank managed to amass enough money by hiring himself out to purchase his wife's freedom and then that of his own. As a free person of color, Free Frank owned and operated a successful saltpeter business and was a lifelong farmer. Through his extraordinary business savvy he purchased several plots of land in both states, including the town of New Philadelphia, which he purchased sight unseen. Established in 1836, the settlement was the first city founded by an African American.
Free Frank was born to a West-African-born slave named Juda sometime in 1777 on the South Carolina frontier where she was a slave of the McWhorter family. No surviving written records point to the child's paternity; however, the family's rich oral history suggests that his father was George McWhorter, his mother's owner. Sources on young Frank's childhood experiences are scarce, but there is substantial information on the activities of his probable father. Settling in Union County in 1763, George McWhorter was among a considerable population of Scotch-Irish immigrants on the American frontier. During the Revolutionary War, McWhorter volunteered and served in Colonel Henry Hampton's regiment of the light dragoons, a part of General Thomas Sumter's South Carolina Brigade. The fact that the revolution marked the beginning of the end of Northern slavery meant little to the reality of slaves in the South such as Frank, whose childhood experiences were undoubtedly defined by fear and terror.
- Born in Pulaski County on the South Carolina frontier
- Marries a slave named Lucy
- First child born
- Allowed to hire himself out to earn money
- Owner dies without making provisions to manumit him
- Purchases wife's freedom from William Denham in April for $800
- Purchases his freedom from the McWhorters in September for $800
- Wins court case validating the legality of marriage between free blacks in Illinois
- Purchases freedom of son Frank Jr., a fugitive slave, for $1000
- Leaves Kentucky for Illinois in September, settling in Pike County
- Purchases son Solomon's freedom for $500 with the money the family earned from the sale of its agricultural products
- Establishes the town of New Philadelphia under the Illinois Town Plat Act
- Dies on September 7
Like most slave owners on the South Carolina frontier, the McWhorters only held a few slaves before settling in Kentucky. Reports on the conditions of Frank's arrival in the state vary, but most sources suggest that he arrived in Pulaski County, Kentucky along with the McWhorter family as their slave. During his first year on the Kentucky frontier, Free Frank met a slave named Lucy who became his wife in 1799. While the commitment of slaves like Frank and Lucy was not legally sanctioned, the pair's commitment was as real then as it was when they eventually formally married under Illinois law in 1839. Born a slave in 1771, Lucy was owned by William Denham, who lived in a distant Pulaski settlement. In 1800, the couple had their first child whom they named Juda, after her paternal grandmother. Over the next seventeen years, Frank and Lucy had twelve more slave-born children, yet only four of the thirteen lived to adulthood and freedom. Similarly, the couple later had four free-born children, only three of whom survived the harsh conditions of the Pulaski County frontier to live to adulthood.
How Industry Secured His Freedom
As a developer and defender of his owner's westward movement to settle the Kentucky Pennyroyal wilderness, Free Frank's value was immeasurable. With the initial settlement period in the late 1790s over, new laws at the turn of the century further encouraged settling on the Kentucky frontier. Slave labor was in demand by new settlers and very profitable for owners who could earn from $80 to $100 a year hiring out their slaves. Given Free Frank's skills as both a farm laborer and jack-of-all-trades, his master could benefit from the lucrative practice by hiring him out throughout the early years of the nineteenth century. Sanctioned and even encouraged by law, the lucrative practice soon became commonplace for slaveholders. However, it was against the law for owners to allow their slaves to hire out their own time.
By 1810, Free Frank was already allowed to hire himself out with the potential to earn his freedom, but the provision required him to pay his owner $10 to $12 a month. Doubtless, George McWhorter never anticipated that there was any real possibility that Free Frank would find enough time to earn his freedom, much less that of his family as well. Then too the availability of crude niter allowed Free Frank to capitalize on the growing demand for saltpeter brought on by the War of 1812. He established a saltpeter works business and was apparently the county's sole provider.
George McWhorter died in 1815 without making any provisions for Free Frank's manumission. His sons agreed to grant Free Frank's freedom in exchange for his continuing to do all the work on the Pulaski farm until he could accumulate the $500 required for his freedom. While the McWhorter brothers probably expected him to take at least another five to fifteen years before he earned the price of his freedom, they had misjudged Free Frank's resourcefulness and business shrewdness.
In April 1817, within just two years of his owner's death, Free Frank purchased his wife's freedom from William Denham for the considerable sum of $800. While the purchase price was $300 more than his own, his wife's freedom meant that any future children she bore would also be free, and the couple welcomed their first free-born child whom they named Squire that September. In September 1819, Free Frank also managed to bargain with the McWhorters for the purchase of his freedom for $800.
Free Frank and his family continued to live in Pulaski County, all the while expanding their business and receiving fame as a result of its success. The family reveled in the accomplishment of Frank, Lucy, and Squire's freedom, but their joy would be short-lived. Denham, Lucy's former owner, died suddenly living considerable debts, part of which his son and executor attempted to pay by suing Lucy for $212 in 1824. The Pulaski court ruled against the Franks and ordered Lucy to repay the debt. Even so, the Franks refused to accept the lower court's verdict and continued to pursue the case until it reached the Kentucky Court of Appeals later that same year. In a landmark decision, the Court of Appeals ruled in the Franks' favor, establishing the precedent that later allowed free blacks to marry in the state of Kentucky. After a series of attempted counter-moves by the Pulaski Court, the Court of Appeals finalized its determination in a 1827 ruling that recognized the right of free blacks to legally marry.
With the possibility of being sold away by the Den-ham's twenty-one-year-old, Frank Jr. fled as a fugitive slave in December 1826. In 1829, Free Frank used the continued success of his saltpeter business to arrange for the purchase of his son Frank's freedom, even though the business was worth more than young Frank's $1000 market value. This was one of the elder Frank's last business transactions before leaving Kentucky for Illinois. In preparation for his departure, Frank purchased a 160—acre tract of land for $200 without ever having seen it to circumvent a new Illinois law that required free blacks to pay a $1000 security bond to guarantee that he or she would not become a public charge. As such, the strategic purchase effectively demonstrated that he was self-supporting and unlikely to become dependent on the state.
By the time he was ready to leave Kentucky for Illinois in September 1830, fifty-three year-old Free Frank had accumulated several hundred dollars from the sale of his homestead and other properties. Free Frank, his wife Lucy, who steadily approached her sixtieth birthday, their newly manumitted son Frank and free-born children Squire, Commodore, and Lucy Ann, began their journey westward, well aware of the dangers posed by kidnappers despite their being free. In Illinois they found racism was pervasive.
They settled in Pike County, a community largely populated by families relocating by way of Kentucky. While settlements on the Military Tract where the Franks settled were sparsely populated, the family was able to use the agricultural equipment they brought with them from Kentucky to cultivate the land that Free Frank purchased. While they earned little from the subsistence crops in their first year, by the 1830s, Free Frank was able to increase his economic activities by diversifying his crops, raising hogs, and boarding horses in the mid-1840s.
Founding New Philadelphia
In 1835, just four years after moving to Illinois, Free Frank was able to purchase his son Solomon's freedom for $500 with the money the family earned from the sale of its agricultural products. The family continued to cultivate their 160—acre farm holdings, and in 1836, they made a critical land acquisition of five adjacent tracts totaling 280 acres for a purchase price of more than $360. In 1836, under the Illinois Town Plat Act, Free Frank established the community of New Philadelphia with 144 lots, two principal streets and several alleys, all named by him. Located just north to the plat, Free Frank remained on his farm even after founding New Philadelphia so that he could attract fellow farmers as well as townspeople to his development.
Despite the sale of at least eight lots by the early 1840s, only three houses stood during the years of depression on the Illinois frontier. Like most fledgling Pike county towns, the community experienced little growth until the end of the depression period in the mid-1940s, when the economic outlook for the entire county improved drastically. Centrally located at the intersection of several important country roads, New Philadelphia acted as a stagecoach stop and opened a U.S. Post Office branch in 1849. Free Frank also planned for the building of a private school to be called Free Will Baptist Seminary that would also serve as a church; the school never materialized. Despite being severely hampered by the relocation of a main road to the outskirts of its community, by 1850 New Philadelphia was home to at least eleven families and a population of 58 people, including 36 whites. Even so, the Illinois assembly passed a law that fined any person who brought free blacks into the state and ordered the arrest and deportment of any free black who came to the city on his or her own in 1853.
As a part of the Underground Railroad, Free Frank and his family readily assisted fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. However, legislative attempts to make the county all-white demonstrated that pioneer blacks were never far from the reach of racism. Even so, Free Frank continued to develop land through the sale of his lots and his steady agricultural efforts. By 1850, the family owned over 600 acres of land valued at more than $7,000. Free Frank purchased the freedom of his daughter Sally in 1843, and he purchased Juda's freedom shortly before 1850. Free Frank's earnings also secured the freedom of seven slave-born grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as the freedom of Squire's fugitive wife Louisa, allowing her to return from Canada (where she had escaped to freedom) to live with the family in Illinois. When Free Frank died on September 7, 1854, he left a legacy much richer than most of his white counterparts at a time. Perhaps most impressively, Free Frank paid more than $14,000 in all to free himself and fifteen other family members in just a forty-year span.
Walker, Juliet E. K. Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983.
Browning, Tamara. "Historic Revival of Town Planned." State Journal Register, 25 July 2005.
Davis, Ericka Blount. "Frontier Town Founded by Black Pioneer." Crisis 111 (September/October 2004): 11.
Smith, Wes. "Freed from Obscurity: This Ex-slave Pioneered a New Image for Blacks." Chicago Tribune, 28 September 1990.
Crystal A. deGregory