December 2021—Chicago Tribune runs letter about New Philadelphia

Good news! A Dec 2021 letter to the Chicago Tribune, subsequently posted on the New Philadelphia Association FB page.

Tonia Lorenz
December 9, 2021

It was a nice surprise to see a letter to the editor in Wednesday’s Chicago Tribune about New Philadelphia:

“After seeing the musical “Paradise Square” at the Nederlander Theatre, I was struck by the historical parallels between New York’s Five Points neighborhood and Illinois’ New Philadelphia community.

The musical depicts a real period in the 1800s when freed and escaped Black people worked and lived with Irish immigrants. Then in 1863, a federal law drafted white men unless they could buy their way out of service for $300, what was then a year’s wage for laborers. The Five Points immigrants, too poor to escape the draft, turned their anger on Black people, who were prohibited from serving their country. Black people were murdered and their homes and businesses burned in what became known as the Civil War draft riots.

What was formerly a utopian community became an example of racial hate.

In Illinois during the same time, New Philadelphia, a farming community, grew to be home to 160 Black and white residents by 1865. It was the first town in the U.S. to be legally founded by a formerly enslaved man, Free Frank McWorter, in 1836. He bought land in Pike County and sold lots to white Europeans to raise money to emancipate the rest of his family.

Twenty miles from the slave state of Missouri, New Philadelphia harbored fugitives, and McWorter family members escorted some to Canada.

While discrimination and black codes existed, New Philadelphia residents lived together peaceably. The town was dissolved around 1880 and forgotten until 1996 when a community group formed to tell McWorter’s story. Only recently has the town drawn national attention.
New Philadelphia was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005 and recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 2009.
Republican U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood and Democratic U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth introduced bills to designate New Philadelphia as a national historical park. If the legislation passes, the National Park Service will manage New Philadelphia with federal money. Visitors will bring much needed tourist dollars to the area.

The designation would also cement the legacy of McWorter, who worked relentlessly to emancipate his family and who created a diverse, peaceful community.

New Philadelphia will be written in history books as a story of love and hope. Sounds like a good musical.

—Christine Ledbetter, Pike County, Illinois”