Conservationists Push to Protect a Symbol of Racial Tolerance
A lost town in Illinois that’s become a symbol of racial tolerance has a more certain future now that a conservation group plans to acquire some of its most historically significant plots.
The Archaeological Conservancy has agreed to purchase nine acres of land in the vanished town of New Philadelphia, a historical site near the Missouri border that has been studied by U of I researchers for years. The area is currently held in a land trust.
Anthropology professor and archaeologist Chris Fennell says the Conservancy plans to purchase “downtown” New Philadelphia, where archaeological digs have revealed a concentration of homes and businesses. The acquisition “will greatly assist in conserving this exceptional historical resource and further facilitating future development of New Philadelphia,” says Fennell.
The town (peak population 160) was founded in 1836 by Frank McWorter, a former slave who bought freedom for himself and his family. The settlement later served as home to a mix of free African Americans and whites who lived at peace with each other within a region marked by racial strife.
New Philadelphia faded away after it was bypassed by a new railroad in 1869, but archaeologists have excavated tens of thousands of artifacts providing insights into the daily life of biracial communities at the time.
The town is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and in January 2009 it was named a National Historic Landmark. A current U.S. Senate bill (S. 1629) would authorize the U.S. National Park Service to study the feasibility of making New Philadelphia a national historical park.