Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.31: Eileen Gunn

The Pleasures of Reading, 2012
by Eileen Gunn

This past year, I have been reading primarily non-fiction, scores of books -- history, biography and memoir, literary criticism – related to the novel I’m working on. The single book that had the most immediate emotional and intellectual effect on me was a work of American history, Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier, by Juliet E. K. Walker.

This is the thoroughly researched and richly detailed true story of Free Frank and Lucy McWhorter, who were born into slavery in the 1770s and married in 1799, in Pulaski County, in southeastern Kentucky. They earned money outside their enslaved responsibilities and put it aside: this was illegal by Kentucky law, but tolerated in many communities. Eventually, in 1817, Frank purchased Lucy’s freedom for $800 and continued working for his own. It took them another two years, and cost them another $800.

Why did he not purchase his own first, as his price in 1817 was only $500, and he would then have been able to earn money full-time? The answer is simple: Lucy was pregnant, and they wanted this child to be born free. She had borne thirteen children over the previous eighteen years of marriage. Four of them survived, aged seventeen, thirteen, six, and two years old when their mother was manumitted, and they still belonged to their previous master, William Denham. Lucy bore four free children, three of whom survived to adulthood. After Lucy and Frank were both free, they remained in Pulaski County, bought property, worked multiple jobs, and started saving to buy their enslaved children, who, as years passed, became adults, married, and had children of their own, who were also enslaved.

In 1826, their son Frank, then 21, fled to Canada, and Denham made it especially difficult and expensive for Free Frank to purchase Young Frank’s manumission, which was necessary if he was ever to return to the U.S. Eventually, in 1829, the determined father traded his saltpeter-manufacturing business -- the profit from which had enabled him to redeem himself and his wife -- for his son’s ability to return to the U.S. Shortly thereafter, he and Lucy sold their property in Kentucky and bought a farm in the free state of Illinois, about 400 miles away. They moved their free children and household goods by ox-drawn Conestoga wagon, a journey that took about six months, built a house, broke up the soil to create a farm, and resumed making the money they needed to buy back the rest of their family.

Even as a slave, Free Frank had shown an unusual aptitude for identifying a business need and filling it, and he had a reputation, townspeople testified, as “kind, benevolent, and honest.” He had managed business affairs for his owner, one George McWhorter, and had negotiated permission to run his saltpeter business while still enslaved. Later, as newly freed people of color in the slave state of Kentucky, he and Lucy successfully appealed a legal judgment against them, and in the process established the right of free blacks in Kentucky to marry and to enter into binding contracts.

Free Frank did this – administered his businesses, pressed and won lawsuits, acquired and sold land -- without being able to read or write. As Dr. Walker acknowledges, illiteracy was not unusual on the then frontier for either white or black people, but that does not refute his remarkable accomplishment. Illinois was becoming more and more restrictive of people of color, whether free or fugitive, and Free Frank and Lucy McWhorter were vulnerable to fraud, theft, and especially capture of themselves and their children by “slave catchers,” who would not hesitate to kidnap free black people and sell them into the deep south, where they could not be traced.

When Free Frank McWhorter died in 1854, 77 years old, seven of his descendants were still enslaved, but he left funds in his will entailed specifically for their purchase, which took another three years. He had leveraged his business acumen, over fifty-five years, to buy out of slavery four generations of his family: his wife and himself, four of his children and a son’s wife, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

As part of this effort, he purchased land and founded a town, New Philadelphia: platted it, promoted it, and sold lots to black and white folk alike. As the town prospered, it became both a residential community and a market center. Many families who lived in the town owned and worked farms outside it. New Philadelphia’s commercial success peaked during the Civil War, a decade after Free Frank’s death. After the war, the new Hannibal and Naples Railroad, running to Pike County from Hannibal, Missouri, looped rather widely around New Philadelphia on its way to Jacksonville and Springfield. It passed a mile or so north of the town and commercial activity shifted accordingly to nearby Hadley. Dr. Walker does not speculate on why this happened – racism, geography, graft or the lack thereof -- but ultimately the town declined, and it vanished in the early twentieth century.

The book that tells this story has its own remarkable history: it was written by Free Frank’s great-great-granddaughter, Juliet E. K. Walker, who is a history professor at the University of Texas in Austin; it builds on research by her mother and the archivism of earlier generations. The McWhorter family meticulously kept their manumission papers and other legal and business documents: the former were essential to prove their freedom, and the latter would prove critical in several lawsuits. The only reason any of these records still exist is that the author’s mother, researching the family history while she was a student at Fisk University in the 1920s, had taken small portion of the papers, with her grandmother’s permission, to show her professor, the African-American sociologist Charles S. Johnson. While she was at school, her grandmother’s house burned down, all the other family documents with it. Dr. Walker, an authority on African-American business history and entrepreneurship, provides copious detail and context for Free Frank McWhorter’s business acumen: how he developed his skill and knowledge. He and his wife more than once successfully used U.S. law to challenge white efforts to defraud him. In addition to the pioneer spirit inherent in his founding a farm and a town on undeveloped prairie, Free Frank had the single-minded determination needed to prosper sufficiently to amass the nearly $14,000 cash required to bring his family together. His descendants, rich in heritage and family history, are mathematicians, engineers, historians, architects, and business professionals.

While reading Free Frank, I became very interested in New Philadelphia, and tried unsuccessfully to find it by scanning Google maps of southern Illinois, its location overshadowed by the still-extant town of New Philadelphia, Ohio. On a road trip to Hannibal, Missouri last September, I drove through that area, which will figure in my book, and fortuitously happened upon a small, discreet roadside sign that read “New Philadelphia,” with an arrow pointing to a county road. I followed the road, that warm, sunny autumn afternoon, and on the side of a grassy hill I found what was left of New Philadelphia: a few weather-beaten outbuildings, a historical marker, a spiffy white gravel road, and a detailed map of the archeological research planned for the property. In 2005, thanks to the efforts of the McWhorter family and the archeology department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, New Philadelphia was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2009 it was designated a National Historic Landmark, as the first town in the U.S. founded by a free black man.

I have since found several websites featuring the history and archeology of New Philadelphia:

The New Philadelphia Archeological Project

The Free Frank McWhorter website

And Wikipedia has pages for both Free Frank and the New Philadelphia town site

You can even fly over it in Google Maps:

All give testament to a remarkable, and mostly unexamined, aspect of American history. Free Frank and Lucy McWhorter faced and overcame challenges that were extraordinary for most pioneers, but all too ordinary for the tens of thousands of black people seeking to leave slavery and establish their families on the antebellum frontier. We are fortunate that even a portion of this larger story is accessible, and that it has been laid out by Dr. Walker in such compelling detail.

Eileen is the author of the collection Stable Strategies and Others (2004) and the co-editor of The WisCon Chronicles, Volume Two, which Aqueduct published in 2008. She has received the Nebula and the Sense of Wonder Awards, been nominated for the Hugo, Philip K. Dick, and World Fantasy Awards, and shortlisted for the Tiptree. She is also the editor/publisher of the Infinite Matrix and in the dead of night can hear it stomping around in the attic.  You can follow Eileen on Twitter here: and visit her website here:


James said...

Wow. So glad I read this.

Randy Byers said...

Fascinating history. Thanks, Eileen.