History Department
History Department

Historian's research earns National Historic Landmark recognition from President Obama

Wed, January 21, 2009

According to the Department of Interior, “National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Today, fewer than 2,500 historic places bear this national distinction.”

The historic significance of Free Frank’s New Philadelphia is documented by University of Texas at Austin Professor Juliet E. K. Walker in her book, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (1983, 1995). It remains the only scholarly historical study that reconstructs Free Frank’s life from birth to death, including Walker’s systematic documentation on Free Frank’s activities in promoting the development of New Philadelphia as a pioneer town on the Illinois frontier from its founding in 1836 to its demise in 1870.

Acknowledging Professor Walker’s singular and seminal research Senator Barack Obama notes in his October 27, 2008 letter to the Department of Interior that: “I am writing in support of the nomination of the New Philadelphia Town Site for recognition as a National Historic Landmark. New Philadelphia is a site of national importance as the first town known to be founded and platted by an African American. Platted in 1836 by Free Frank McWorter, a former slave, New Philadelphia thrived as a bi-racial community during a period of extreme racial tension.”

Walker, the great-great-granddaughter of Free Frank, began research with her University of Chicago doctoral dissertation, “Free Frank and New Philadelphia: Slave and Freedman, Frontiersman and Town Founder.” The topic, Walker emphasizes, was inspired by her mother, Thelma McWorter Kirkpatrick, and encouraged as a dissertation by her advisor, the eminent scholar and historian Dr. John Hope Franklin.

In 1988, Walker had Free Frank’s grave site entered in the National Register of Historic Places. Only three grave sites in Illinois are listed in the National Register: the other two are Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass. In 1990, then Congressman Richard Durbin in a tribute to Dr. Walker said in a speech published in the Congressional Record:

"Mr. Speaker, on Saturday I will attend a ceremony honoring Free Frank McWorter whose pioneering spirit and entrepreneurship led to freedom from slavery for himself, his family, and many others he helped escape through the underground railroad. His great-great-granddaughter, Prof. Juliet E. K. Walker, has worked long and hard to secure Free Frank's place in history. Her efforts have made many people more aware of an aspect of African-American history and business that is little known to most Americans."

Significantly, Free Frank’s New Philadelphia town site is one of only a few National Historic Landmarks that recognizes black business activities before the Civil War, particularly, too, the historic contributions of a slave-born antebellum black who never learned to read or write.

Free Frank was an antebellum black entrepreneur. With profits earned from various business beginning in 1812, first as a slave, and then as a free black, Free Frank purchased 16 family members from slavery beginning with his wife Lucy (1771-1870) in 1817 and then his own in 1819. As town proprietor, the founding of New Philadelphia and the sale of town lots was one of Free Frank business ventures. Also, unlike the all-black towns founded after the Civil War, whites purchased New Philadelphia town lots from Free Frank, compared to some black towns where blacks purchased town lots from whites.

Significantly, Free Frank’s great-great-granddaughter, an award-winning historian, is also a pioneer in her own right with her research and publications including The History of Black Business in American: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship (1998). Her book is circulated in 1,322 libraries worldwide and is the first and only comprehensive scholarly book on the topic. She is also editor of The Encyclopedia of African American Business History (1999). Walker has authored over 90 articles on black business, including, as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in South Africa, research on a comparative study of black business in the United States and South Africa.

In her seminal research, Walker is recognized as having established Black Business History as a subfield in African American history. She is also the founder/director of the Center of Black Business History, Entrepreneurship and Technology (CBBH) at the University of Texas, the first and only research center established to encourage the study of black business history.

Walker’s family provides contrasting histories. Due to Free Frank’s entrepreneurship, her mother’s family in Illinois secured freedom from slavery, but her father’s family in Texas, the Kirkpatricks, remained slaves until Juneteenth Day, June 19, 1865.

She hopes that the National Historic Landmark recognition given her great, great grandfather Free Frank and New Philadelphia will encourage greater interest in the history of black business.

Related Sites
Prof. Juliet E.K. Walker
Center for Black Business History, Entrepreneurship, Technology
Free Frank New Philadelphia Historic Preservation Foundation
Sen. Barack Obama's Letter to National Historic Landmarks Committee
Sen. Richard J. Durbin's tribute to Free Franks' gravesite being listed in National Register

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