Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Remarkable Journey of Frank McWhorter


Frank, known simply as "Frank" for many years, was born into the bonds of slavery amidst the chaos of the American Revolution in South Carolina. In 1795, his owner, George McWhorter, relocated him to Kentucky. Years later, Frank married Lucy, another slave from a neighboring estate.

During that period, owners commonly profited from their slaves' skills by sharing proceeds. This was not out of kindness but rather an intelligent business strategy. If a skilled slave earned nothing, they had no motivation to produce quality goods. This would deter potential customers from renting the slave, making the owner lose out on a lucrative opportunity. Slaves were considered valuable assets, and their maintenance involved the high initial purchase cost and lifelong necessities like food, clothing, medical care, and supervision. Sometimes, there were also extra expenses, such as hiring slave catchers. Thus, to make these assets profitable, owners had to ensure their slaves were reputable, and they did this by allowing slaves a share of their earnings.

Frank stood out because of his managerial and entrepreneurial acumen. He handled operations on George McWhorter's estates and also launched several businesses. The most lucrative of these ventures was a saltpeter operation during the War of 1812 when saltpeter, a gunpowder ingredient, was highly sought after. It wasn't rare for entrepreneurial slaves to save enough to buy their freedom. For the slaves, this wasn't just a transaction—it was a fight for their fundamental human rights.

By 1817, Frank had saved enough to buy Lucy's freedom, and two years later, he secured his own, becoming "Free" Frank. Their eldest son, Frank Jr., had previously fled to Canada to escape slavery. In 1829, Free Frank exchanged his saltpeter business to purchase his son's freedom, ensuring his safe return. In 1830, Free Frank and Lucy, Frank Jr., and their three freeborn children moved to Illinois, purchasing farmland.

Free Frank's story takes an extraordinary turn in 1836. Despite Illinois' oppressive racism, Frank managed to buy land, navigate legal intricacies, and even convince the Illinois legislature to grant him limited citizenship rights. Adopting "McWhorter" as his surname, he legalized his marriage to Lucy and founded New Philadelphia, a town symbolizing new beginnings. Over time, Frank McWhorter launched businesses, served as a mayor, and secured the freedom of at least 16 family members. New Philadelphia thrived as an integrated community—a rarity for that time and place.

However, New Philadelphia faced challenges. Publicly funded transportation projects like the Hannibal and Naples Railroad bypassed New Philadelphia, cutting it off from economic opportunities. This pattern of government projects disregarding minority communities' interests was not limited to New Philadelphia. Due to new freeways, a similar fate befell Nashville's historically black business district in the 20th century.

The Illinois Black Codes, prevalent from 1818 to 1867, further illustrate the era's racial prejudice. These codes, which dictated African Americans' rights (or lack thereof), included rules that forbade voting, required freedom certificates, prohibited gatherings, and restricted movement, among other oppressive measures.

Free Frank's story is a testament to the human spirit's resilience despite such monumental challenges. His ability to carve out an integrated, prosperous community amid such adversity underscores the importance of economic freedom and the dangers of centralized planning. His legacy is a cautionary tale for modern society, prioritizing community well-being over centralized economic interests.




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