AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum
Chicago Tribune article on midwest towns
Long-buried story of black America
Archeologists provide concrete details about African-American land speculators and utopian pioneers in the Midwest
BARRY, Ill. –– The three archeologists moved deliberately across a soggy Illinois farm field, marking boundaries for a vanished town where blacks determined their destiny on the American frontier well before the Civil War.
The town, New Philadelphia, turned out to be bigger than they thought.
So, too, scholars believe, is the long-buried story of black Americans during this period.
With fresh scholarship, new grants and high technology, university archeologists are renewing and expanding efforts to explore the Midwestern towns where African-Americans lived in the 1800s. In the last few years they have pried back the earth in Nicodemus, Kan., reconsidered the lessons of places like Buxton, Iowa, and returned this spring to the hilltop site of New Philadelphia, where digging began in 2002.
Tantalizing recoveries from the sites, along with yellowed documents and oral history, have fueled a surge of interest in black towns during the last several years, building hopes that the interest would help rewrite a neglected chapter in American history books. Scholars of African-American history are familiar with the idea of blacks as land speculators and utopian pioneers.
Now archeologists––more recent arrivals to the topic––are adding concrete details.
Every discarded button from a Civil War uniform, shard of china from England or food scrap from trash pits adds to an emerging narrative in which African-Americans faced and surmounted obstacles on the frontier when much of America was consumed with racial turmoil.
"Black people had guns, and they owned the land," University of Illinois scholar Abdul Alkalimat said of New Philadelphia, which was established in 1836. "Whatever the definition of black power is, it certainly existed in New Philadelphia."
Though each town had a different personality, scholars say self-determination tied them together. All are on the National Register of Historic Places and are National Historic Sites or recently nominated for inclusion.
Officials call their appeal universal.
"It is a story of people overcoming hardship and succeeding in the face of what most people would fail at," said Bill Hunt of the National Park Service Midwest Archeological Center.
Freed slaves hoping for a better life far from white America founded Nicodemus in 1877 after a grueling journey from the South ended on the dry plains of northwestern Kansas.
Beginning with sod houses dug out of hillsides, settlers at Nicodemus built a town with two newspapers, three general stores, a school, an ice cream parlor and a literary society. About 40 people still live in Nicodemus, and descendants of settlers hold reunions there on Emancipation Day.
Research at the original settlement site revealed details of the town's beginnings and remarkable rise from them, said Margaret Wood of Washburn University, who led digs at the site in 2005 and 2006. The excavations identified the town's first dugout homes and uncovered such everyday possessions as earthenware bowls and glass bottles, shell buttons and tin cans––and attracted hundreds of curious volunteers and visiting scholars. "It's a growing area of research," Wood said. "The field is coming to a greater maturity."
As it does, scholars are paying renewed attention to previously excavated towns such as Buxton.
A prosperous village founded by a union-busting coal company in 1900, Buxton was home to African-American doctors, lawyers and teachers, two YMCAs (one for children) and interracial swimming pools. Even the Ku Klux Klan confined local marches to nearby towns, said David Gradwohl of Iowa State University, who led excavations at Buxton in the 1980s.
A series of public talks centered on African-American heritage in the Midwest kicked off last week with a speech about his findings. The last digs at Buxton were guided by crumbling building foundations and the hazy memories of former residents who described the Monroe Mercantile Co. warehouse, the White House Hotel and the superintendent's home at the Consolidated Coal Co., Gradwohl said.
When he talks nowadays about the digs in Buxton, he addresses how academics have refined their perspective on black history in the Midwest––a discussion inspired recently by finds in New Philadelphia.
The interracial town on the western Illinois prairie was a short wagon ride from slave markets in Hannibal, Mo. Founded by Frank McWorter, a land speculator and a free black man, Buxton had a population that was two-thirds white and an integrated school.
By the Civil War, it reached a height of 160 people who had gambled that a railroad would pass nearby. When it didn't in 1869, the settlement faded into the prairie, the abandoned structures pried apart and used to patch remaining homes, until all that remained were memories and buried clues.
The Tribune last reported on the digs at New Philadelphia in 2004; a year later, the town joined the National Register of Historic Places.
National Historic Landmark status could come this fall, after more digging this summer.
The project resumed mid-May when archeologists returned to the farm field near modern Barry, trailing measuring tapes.
They walked past the spot where New Philadelphia's blacksmith once pounded out nails, past the shoemaker, cabinetmaker and grocery shops, over the buried town's old main drag and past the fresh wooden stakes where a find of century-old slate pencils rewrote a best guess on the location of New Philadelphia's schoolhouse.
After talking with Christopher Fennell, the U. of I. professor coordinating the summer's digs, archeologists Tommy Hailey of Louisiana and Bryan Haley of Mississippi staked wide metal flashings in the damp ground that are visible from the air.
The next time they see the site, they will be dangling from an ultra-light aircraft, searching for hidden foundations with an infrared camera.
For the first time in generations, someone might see the entire town at once, the archeologists said.
As insights mount, historians have a responsibility to put those lessons into textbooks, scholars say. So far, history books cling to images of blacks as victims benefiting from others instead of bold pioneers, they say.
"Archeology is not just looking at rocks and pieces of pottery. It's what this represents," said Gradwohl, who held broken china from Buxton and saw shattered stereotypes in his hand.
"It's just incredible how this history is there," he said. "And until relatively recently, how it hasn't been a part of our American textbooks and literature."