Ahead of Its Time?

Founded by a freed slave, an Illinois town was a rare example of biracial cooperation before the Civil War

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Some newspaper reports about the dig have played up the idea of the town as an oasis of racial tolerance. But a descendant of the town's founder disputes that view. The "premise that New Philadelphia was a town where blacks and whites lived in racial harmony ...is just not historic reality, any more than to claim that slaves lived happily on plantations," argues Juliet Walker, a great-great-granddaughter of McWorter and a historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

Shackel denies any attempt to idealize the past. "While the archaeology will probably not be able to show harmony or disharmony, it can illustrate the way of life for groups of people living in a biracial community," he says. "Archaeology is a way to provide a story of a people who have not been traditionally recorded in history. Our goal is to tell the story of New Philadelphia from the bottom up and provide an inclusive story of the town."

Despite their disagreements, both Walker and Shackel would like to see New Philadelphia commemorated by more than a roadside plaque. Walker envisions rebuilding the town. Shackel, who has the support of the New Philadelphia Association, a local citizens' group, hopes to turn the site into a state or national park. "There’s probably 20 years of archaeology to explore and interpret," Shackel says. "We're in the first mile of a marathon."


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