Frank McWhorter: An American Dreamer



Frank, and only “Frank” for many years, was born into slavery during the American Revolution on a plantation in South Carolina. In 1795 his owner, George McWhorter, moved to Kentucky, taking Frank with him. A few years later, Frank married Lucy, a slave on a neighbouring plantation. It was not unusual for owners to hire skilled slaves and split the proceeds. Sharing the profits was not benevolence but good business. A capable slave who earned nothing would have no incentive to produce quality products. Therefore, potential customers for the slave’s work would have no incentive to rent the slave. The owner would lose this opportunity to earn additional income from his valuable “asset.” These assets were expensive. Aside from the high purchase cost, asset maintenance required that the owner provide slaves with food, clothing, medical care, and strict supervision for their entire lives. There were other costs, like the occasional services of pricey slave catchers. So, to recover costs on the rental market, the owner needed slaves with a reputation for good service, which the owner transacted by giving the slave a cut of the earnings. Frank was a valuable asset, though his skill was not typical. Frank, instead, had management and business skills. He often managed George McWhorter’s plantations and started and ran several small businesses.

The most profitable was saltpetre works he built during the War of 1812 when saltpetre was in great demand as a component of gunpowder. It was not unusual for such enterprising slaves to save their money and buy their freedom. From the owner’s point of view, selling slaves, and their freedom was sometimes a good business decision, especially when cash was short. A good slave could quickly bring in $800, a large sum in those days. Selling also relieved the owner of maintenance costs. For the slave, of course, buying freedom was far more than a mere business transaction, and the very need to buy freedom was far worse than appalling. Nevertheless, one tiny saving grace of the vicious system was that this possibility existed.
Frank took advantage of it. In 1817 Frank bought his wife Lucy’s freedom; two years later, he bought his own, after which Frank became “Free” Frank. Frank Jr., the eldest son of Free Frank and Lucy, had escaped slavery to Canada, undoubtedly, a fascinating story if we could only learn more if it. Frank Jr. could not safely return to the United States so long as he was a fugitive, so, in 1829, Free Frank bought Frank Jr.’s freedom in exchange for his saltpetre works. Frank Jr. could safely return to his family. The following year, with Frank Jr. and three freeborn children, Free Frank and Lucy left Kentucky for Illinois, where they bought a farm. Up to this point, the story is remarkable on many levels, though not particularly unusual. The story became uncommon in 1836. For starters, Free Frank had been able to buy a farm and settle his family in southern Illinois, a virulently racist state where free blacks had almost no rights except the right of transit. They could enter for a while and then leave. There was little else they were allowed in that or most states of what we now call the Midwest. Then, it would seem that Frank had unique personal qualities that allowed him to skirt certain legal niceties. Next, Frank prevailed on the Illinois legislature to pass a law that would grant him limited citizenship. He took McWhorter as his official last name, legally married Lucy, and founded a town he named, meaningfully, New Philadelphia. Over the next several decades, Frank McWhorter worked his farm, started other businesses, promoted the city, served as mayor, and bought the freedom of at least 16 more family members. Blacks and whites both settled in New Philadelphia, building what was then an extreme rarity in Illinois or anywhere else in the North: an integrated society. Integration was the norm right down the school. Frank McWhorter died in 1854 at the age of seventy-seven. However, the town continued under the leadership of his son Solomon for several more decades.
Until the citizens of New Philadelphia learned the meaning of government intervention and central economic planning, that is why New Philadelphia, Illinois, though only a tiny part of the American story. The American story contains millions of such remote regions. We need to know at least some features to see the whole. The Hannibal and Naples Railroad was financed through bond sales by Pike County. It ignored surveyor recommendations and made an expensive detour around New Philadelphia. There is no record of why it chose to do so. However, there is every reason to believe that a private line, with its own money at risk, would neither have ignored the cheaper route nor ignored the commercial potential of New Philadelphia. Since the line’s backing through public support, public prejudices overruled private interests.
New Philadelphia’s vibrant, integrated community, founded and led by free blacks, was cut off from the new railroad-based economy. It disappeared from Illinois and almost from history. History does not repeat itself but certainly, rhymes. New Philadelphia is more a story of how public finance enabled public prejudice to move when the government once again took on building transportation infrastructure. America’s national freeway project would bear many similarities to its national rail project of the nineteenth century. The direct phrase was used, building white roads through black businesses. As New Philadelphia in the nineteenth century, so Nashville in the twentieth. Nashville’s relatively vibrant and safe black business district for a freeway. For New Philadelphia, the government avoided the best route to cut off the city. In the case of Nashville, it accomplished the same by doing the opposite. Central planners ran through instead of around the historically-black business zone. It added an extraneous jog to the freeway to go right through and destroy the black business district of Nashville. Black business people challenged the government in court. The court found it in their favour but said it was too late to do anything. Similar construction patterns occur in every American city. Building the new government freeways, leaving crime and drug-ridden minority neighbourhoods in their wake, would become no-opportunity zones for the people born there during the next half-century.
Grant it, and no one can do enough research to know exactly the motivations of anyone at any time. However, we can review legislation of a particular period and at least get a feeling about the will of the voting majority. For example, a quick sampling of the Black Codes from the great State of Illinois can give us a clue about the voting public’s attitude when Frank created New Philadelphia.
SUMMARY OF THE ILLINOIS BLACK CODES, 1818–65 The State of Illinois observed the Illinois Black Codes from 1818 until the passage of Amendment XVII in 1867. After 1853, Illinois prohibited all African Americans from entering the state. A summary of the Illinois Black Codes: • The right to vote was denied to all African Americans. • No African American was permitted to reside in Illinois without a Certificate of Freedom. • Any African American without the necessary certificate was deemed a runaway slave and was subject to be sent back into slavery or sold to the highest bidder. • All African Americans entering the state were required to post a $1,000 bond. • If any slave or indentured servant was found more than ten miles from the home of their master without a pass, they were subject to be taken before a justice of the peace and “punished with stripes [lashes], not exceeding thirty-five, at his discretion.” • All contracts created between a master and his indentured servants during the servant’s time of service were void. • African Americans could be jailed and beaten if they gathered in groups of three or more. • African Americans and Native Americans were not permitted to testify against a white person in court. • African Americans were not permitted to serve in the militia. • Any person that harboured an African American without a bond or a Certificate of Freedom was subject to a fine of $500. • Slaveholders could not bring slaves into Illinois in order to free them. • African Americans from other states could not remain in Illinois for more than ten days. They could be arrested, jailed, fined, or removed from the state if they did. • The Illinois Constitution permitted limited slavery at the salt mines in Massac County and allowed slavery introduced by the French to continue; however, the children of these slaves were free when they reached adulthood.
The State of Illinois, the same state Lincoln migrated to and held political power for many decades before becoming President, legalized these codes. Lincoln never once made proposals for changing the codes.- Similar codes were in many Northwestern and New England states, even Massachusetts. And if racism satisfies as an answer, then accept it turn out the lights and sleep well.
However, if the reader wonders how Frank overcame all the above obstacles and created a heaven on Earth, a need exam the root cause of his success will be more satisfying: lack of central economic planning. Frank’s economic imagination created a nineteenth-century opportunity zone before the window was closed by the financial planners. Today, a warning for all of us bowing to the altar of public-private partnerships.