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Free Frank (1777 - 1854), City and Town Founder / Benefactor, Entrepreneur, Painter

Donovan S. Weight

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Free Frank (1777 - 1854), City and Town Founder / Benefactor, Entrepreneur, Painter

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entrepreneur, pioneer, and town founder, was born near the Pacolet River in Union County, South Carolina, the son of an enslaved woman named Juda. His paternity is a bit murky, but most evidence points to his owner George McWhorter. Little information exists about the West African–born Juda other than that she had been a slave to the McWhorters since 1775. Oral family tradition holds that although George McWhorter sent Juda to the woods with orders to kill the baby at birth, Juda protected Frank, preserved him, and brought him home alive the next morning. The boy who would become Free Frank spent his-formative years learning how to farm in the backwoods country of South Carolina. At eighteen Frank moved with his owner to a temporary homestead in-Lincoln County, Kentucky. In 1798 George McWhorter bought some farmland in newly formed Pulaski County, Kentucky. In Pulaski, Frank met and fell in love with Lucy Denham, a slave of William Denham. While the Denham and McWhorter farms lay some distance apart, Denham's daughter had married McWhorter's brother in 1795. The family connection no doubt brought Frank and Lucy together. Frank and Lucy married in 1799, but both remained at their respective masters' farms for the time being.Sometime prior to 1810 George McWhorter moved to Wayne County in southern Kentucky and established a second farm, but he left Frank with the authority to continue to run the Pulaski farm. McWhorter also found it profitable to let Frank hire out his time. While Kentucky's slave codes forbade this, all involved benefited. McWhorter still received the profits from the farms, and he also received an annual payment from Frank out of his wages. Frank kept what was left, giving him extra money to put toward freedom, and the people of labor-starved Pulaski County obtained a well-trained worker.McWhorter's decision to move south and leave Frank behind benefited the enslaved man in multiple ways. It gave Frank an opportunity to remain close to his growing family, and it also allowed him to build up the savings he needed to purchase his freedom. By the time Frank and Lucy bought their freedom, they already had thirteen slave-born children, although only four of them lived to adulthood. The desire to buy freedom for himself and his family motivated Frank in all his entrepreneurial endeavors.By 1810 it was apparent that the United States might soon be at war with Great Britain. This combined with the growing need for gunpowder on the ever-expanding western frontier caused sustained price increases for gunpowder and its principal ingredient saltpeter during this era. After finishing his farm work for the day, Frank spent his nights mining crude niter—the natural resource used to make saltpeter—from local limestone caves. He eventually created his own saltpeter manufactory. Manufacturing saltpeter was a laborious but simple process that required few specialized tools. Frank also appropriated a plot of land and sold the produce he grew there alongside that from his master's land, and he may have even dabbled in distilling whiskey and producing salt. Through these endeavors, Frank and Lucy netted over sixteen hundred dollars in approximately ten years. With this money, they bought Lucy's freedom in 1817 (she was expecting again and they wanted the baby to be born free) and Frank's in 1819. Frank valued his freedom so much that he had himself recorded in the 1820 federal census as Free Frank, the name by which he is known to history.After buying their freedom, Lucy and Free Frank stayed in Kentucky and continued to make saltpeter and participate in other entrepreneurial activities. Free Frank speculated in land, increased his commercial farming activities, and moved his saltpeter works to Danville, Kentucky, to increase trade opportunities. As more white settlers moved into frontier Kentucky during the late 1820s, new legislation made life increasingly harsh for free blacks. Free Frank liquidated his land in Kentucky and acquired 160 acres in Illinois. He also traded his entire saltpeter manufactory for the freedom of Frank, his oldest son. In 1830 Free Frank, his wife Lucy, his manumitted son Frank, and his three surviving freeborn children left Kentucky for Pike County, Illinois.When Lucy and Free Frank moved to Illinois, they left three children and various grandchildren in slavery. Free Frank geared his activities in Illinois toward the goal of amassing enough money to buy the rest of his children and grandchildren out of slavery. By 1836 Free Frank had acquired six hundred acres of Illinois farmland. To keep his property safe should something happen to him, he petitioned the court to take the legal surname of McWorter. In the same year Free Frank achieved his most notable success by founding New Philadelphia, Illinois. Free Frank sold his first town lots on 28 April 1837, and he continued to sell and develop lots until his death in 1854. New Philadelphia was the earliest town legally founded by a free African American in the United States.Free Frank dedicated his life to the uplift of his family and those around him. While Free Frank never learned to write, he stressed education to his children and donated the land for the New Philadelphia schoolhouse. Free Frank's family also actively participated in Illinois's Underground Railroad. When Free Frank died in New Philadelphia, he had not quite achieved his dream of freeing his entire family. However, through the settlement of his estate, Free Frank's children bought Free Frank's last five grandchildren and two great grandchildren still held in slavery. From 1817 to 1857 Free Frank and Lucy paid approximately fifteen thousand dollars to buy themselves and over a dozen family members from slavery.

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Subjects: History

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