Anthropologist Led Effort to Convince Congress to Recognize First African American-Founded Town
Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
After bemoaning that she would be 55 years old if she returned to college to earn her undergraduate degree, Charlotte King’s friend asked, “How old will you be if you don’t finish your studies?”
Moved by those words, her daughters graduating from college, and the support of fellow nontraditional students, King completed her B.A. in anthropology in 2003 and her master’s in applied anthropology and certificate in historic preservation in 2008, honors that led her on a path to successfully lobbying Congress to recognize the first town legally founded and registered by an African American in the United States—Frank McWorter’s New Philadelphia, Illinois—as a national park.
“I hope the lasting legacy of the site recognizes the contributions of African Americans to our country’s history; educates the public about the remarkable story of New Philadelphia, the McWorter family and its extraordinary founder, Frank McWorter; and inspires current and future generations about the values of New Philadelphia and the McWorter family: the quest for freedom, opportunity and love for family,” she said.
King’s work with the New Philadelphia site began as part of her undergraduate thesis work with anthropology Professor Paul Shackel, who was already doing research there. Her goal was to compare New Philadelphia with Boley, Oklahoma, founded by two white men, to test the viability of a self-governed African American community.
She remembers Shackel telling her that she was embarking on a remarkable adventure that would take her to the National Archives, the Library of Congress, to Oklahoma and Illinois. In fact, the journey went even farther, to the halls of Congress and the Smithsonian Museum of American History to pursue recognition for the town, McWorter and his family.
McWorter, a formerly enslaved man from Kentucky, bought freedom for himself and 15 family members and in 1836 began to sell side-by-side New Philadelphia lots to free-born and formerly enslaved African and European Americans. The town reached its economic peak with 160 residents in 1865, then began losing its population due to the rerouting of a planned railroad and the growth of neighboring communities. By the 1940s, most homes and structures had disappeared from the landscape.
New Philadelphia, King said, later survived “one of the most racially turbulent eras of our country’s history,” but in 1996, nearby highway development threatened what was left of it. That prompted the creation of the New Philadelphia Association (NPA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the historical site and McWorter’s legacy.
That’s where Shackel came in, joining Vibert White, chair of the African American studies program at the University of Illinois, on the New Philadelphia research project. In 2002 and 2003, members of the community marked the location of each of more than 7,000 historic and 1,000 prehistoric artifacts recovered from the surface.
Supported by grants from the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, Shackel, and other researchers conducted field schools at the site from 2004-11, unearthing and mapping more than 150,000 artifacts. King served as lab director from 2004-06.
“She ensured the students had a great learning experience and that all artifacts were correctly cataloged and curated,” Shackel said. “Her work ethic was admired by all.”
King joined the NPA after her 2008 graduation, at which point, through her master’s thesis, she nominated New Philadelphia for National Historic Landmark designation, one of the highest designations the federal government can bestow upon a historic property or archaeological site.
The following year, the secretary of the interior awarded New Philadelphia that distinction.
King was later nominated to the NPA’s Board of Directors, in which role she nominated the site for membership in the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, and provided information to curators on the “Many Voices, One Nation” exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Most recently, King played a lead role lobbying Congress to establish New Philadelphia as a national park. She spent several years finding the right mix of legislators to back the idea, which was attached to the 2022 omnibus bill signed by President Biden in December. In the coming months, the National Park Service will develop plans to welcome visitors.
“Not only do I admire Charlotte as a wonderful, kind and generous person, I am in awe of her focus and determination to lobby Congress and help make New Philadelphia the 424th national park,” said Shackel. “Adding New Philadelphia to the pantheon of nationally significant places on the American landscape will only help provide a deeper understanding of America’s diverse past and help to create a more inclusive narrative of our American story.”
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