House passes measure tied to New Philadelphia national park designation

Posted: Apr. 29, 2014 10:23 am Updated: May. 20, 2014 1:14 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

BARRY, Ill. -- New Philadelphia has moved closer to national park status.

The U.S. House of Representatives Monday passed a measure sponsored by Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Peoria, seeking a special resource study to facilitate the historic site's designation as a national park.

"This legislation is another sure stitch in the healing process for a nation once divided so bitterly and tragically over the issue of slavery," Schock said on the House floor before the New Philadelphia resolution passed unanimously on a voice vote.

Seeking the National Park Service designation is the next step for the town site, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, named a National Historic Landmark in 2009, and included in the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom in 2013.

The legislation now goes to the U.S. Senate, where Illinois' senators, Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, already had introduced a similar measure.

"We don't know what the Senate will do, but the information we're being given now is very positive," said Phil Bradshaw, New Philadelphia Association president. "There's a good possibility we'll have this legislation during this session. Then we've got to have the feasibility study."

Town founder Frank McWorter was a former slave born in 1777 who saved enough money to buy his own freedom and the freedom of 16 other family members.

In 1830, the family moved to Illinois, where McWorter bought a farm in Pike County. In 1836, he plotted the town of New Philadelphia and founded it as the first fully racially integrated community before the Civil War.

"At a time of immense cultural and political hostilities over the issues of slavery, the McWorter family and the other citizens of New Philadelphia built a town where free African-Americans and European settlers lived and worked side by side," Schock said. "This family, this town, are examples of the best of America, and they accomplished it during the worst of our times."

The legislation directs the secretary of the interior to conduct the study of the archaeological site and surrounding land. It requires the secretary to evaluate the national significance of the area; determine the suitability and feasibility of designating it as part of the national park system; consider other alternatives for preservation, protection and interpretation of the area; and determine the effect of the designation on existing commercial and recreational activities.

Sheena Franklin, a direct descendant of McWorter, and Charlotte King, a director of the New Philadelphia Association, were in the U.S. House gallery for Monday's vote.

King testified in July 2013 in favor of the legislation, saying then that "by including New Philadelphia among the national treasures designated units of the National Park Service, of which currently less than 5 percent are predominantly associated with African-American history, the story of the country will be more complete and accurate and give recognition to contributions of African-Americans to the development of our country."