New Philadelphia Site Inching Closer to Joining National Park System

By Benjamin Cox on June 7, 2022 at 8:44am

Photo Courtesy of the National Park Service

West Central Illinois may have the newest addition to the National Park system soon.

Four Illinois Congressman last year introduced House Resolution 820 to make New Philadelphia Historic Park a part of the National Park System. Chief sponsor, 18th District Congressman Darin LaHood, was joined by fellow Illinois Congressmen Danny Davis, Rodney Davis, and Mike Bost in introducing the legislation.

The act passed the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks on May 11th by unanimous vote. It now awaits a vote from the full House of Representatives.

Located outside of modern-day Barry in Pike County, the site is where Free Frank McWhorter, a freed Black slave, first platted and legally registered the first town by a Black man in the United States prior to the Civil War. The town was established in 1836. The site is a registered National Historic landmark.

Executive Director of the New Philadelphia Association and Barry alderwoman Marynel Corton says that the park has major national historic significance: “It’s very important locally for heritage tourism, but it’s also very important for the nation. While this was a town that was multi-racial, in fact there were more Caucasian that lived there than African-Americans, it was started by an African-American who started out in life as a slave and then bought his freedom and ultimately bought 14 other family members’ freedom. There are only about 7% of sites in the National Park Service that are directly related to African-American history. For that reason, it is very important to the nation for this to become a National Park.”

Corton says the site could become a part of a whole heritage tourism corridor inner-connecting sites in Hannibal, Missouri, Quincy, Pittsfield, Jacksonville, Springfield, Petersburg and others in West Central Illinois: “We all could kind of work together to develop a group of historical, cultural sites that will educate people about all of our history and not just certain stories.”

Corton says that descendants for Free Frank McWhorter, who platted the town, are still living in the area and are a part of the site. She says that one of them is still a member of the Barry Baptist Church where McWhorter attended. At the end of May, a Looking for Lincoln marker was placed outside the church. Corton says that Lincoln sat in the legislature when McWhorter had to come before the General Assembly to secure his last name and rights to representation so he could legally plat the town. Congressman Rodney Davis spoke at the marker dedication and updated the public about the push to get the site designated a National Park.

The second tie-in to Lincoln comes via well-known 19th Century photographer and Barry resident Calvin Jackson. Jackson photographed Lincoln on a Senate campaign stop in 1858 in Pittsfield.

Corton says she hopes that the federal government takes over the site so that McWhorter and the stories of New Philadelphia are not forgotten.