Black History Fun Fact Friday – Free Frank

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This is a man who was free in more ways than one. Welcome back to Black History Fun Fact Friday. Meet, Free Frank.

The first African American to found his own town in the United States, Free Frank was born Frank McWorter on September 7, 1777 as a slave in South Carolina to a West African woman named Juda. Having been abducted and then enslaved it is commonly assumed that his father was the Scots-Irish master George McWhorter. In any event, Frank was leased by McWhorter to neighbors as a laborer. This experience (despite the situation) lead to him gaining entrepreneurial skills and businesses skills being around those he was leased to.

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He later married an African American woman from another plantation named Lucy.  Together they had four children. The extra money Frank was making gave him the opportunity not only to free himself but also his wife ($800) and oldest son. Earlier in life he’d founded a saltpeter plant which he sold later in exchange for the freedom of Frank Jr. who was a fugitive in Canada. Lucy and Frank also had three more freeborn children.

Free Frank did more than free individuals from slavery but he was also an entrepreneur. Frank and his family moved to Pike County, Illinois in 1830 and in 1836 founded what is now Philadelphia Illinois. Frank built the community on 80 acres of land, but it didn’t stop here. Limited by state statutes, McWorter petitioned the Illinois General Assembly using a legislative loophole, and by 1836 he and his sons owned 600 acres in Hadley Township without restriction. Frank leased plots to both white and black residents.

Although the railroad sliced through Pike County in 1869, there were some parts of the community that remained active until the 1920s and is considered one of the most famous antebellum towns.

The town size grew to approximately 160 people, 29 households, and several craftspeople and merchants by 1865. Frank witnessed that growth until his death in 1854 at the age of 77 years, while Lucy lived to 99 years of age, raising their family until her death in 1870.