I would like to reprint here, in its entirety, an article by Madelynn Coldiron which was published in the Friday, September 21, 1990 edition of the Commonwealth Journal:
Miles in his shoes: Professor honoring enslaved ancestor with 2 ½-week trek
Juliet E.K. Walker yesterday began a 400-mile journey in her great-great-grandfather’s footsteps, hoping his story will encourage African Americans and others along the path of economic opportunity today.
The lost histories of pre-Civil War Black Americans provide modern-day parallels and inspiration, she said yesterday during the first 20-mile stretch of her “Freedom Walk” from Somerset to Barry, Illinois.
The 2 ½-week trek is a prelude to an Oct. 6 ceremony placing her great-great-grandfather’s gravesite near Barry, on the National Register of Historic Places.
Slave-born pioneer Free Frank McWorter, the first Black American on record to found a town, began his entrepreneurial career in the Fishing Creek area of Pulaski County in 1795, overcoming the overwhelming odds of the time in which he lived.
By paying his owner a fee, he eventually earned enough money through manufacturing, farming and speculating to free himself, his wife and 14 family members, said Walker, 50, a University of Illinois history professor who has written a book about her ancestor.
“To me, it was not enough just to hold a ceremony, put a plaque at a grave site and then go on, she explained.
Retracing McWorter’s journey from Pulaski County to Illinois, said Walker, “makes his life real.”
Although grant money would have been readily available to finance the trek, she is picking up the tab because the journey is a personal tribute.
Friends like Michael West, a Northwestern University history professor who is armed with a video camera to record the high points, are providing moral support and transportation at various stages.
He and Walker toured the route before the actual event to pinpoint places for food, shelter and restrooms, but didn’t plan too much. Otherwise, she confessed, “I think I might have been overwhelmed.”
Walker is hoping people who hear about the trip as it progresses will walk with her part of the way.
Striding briskly along the shoulder of U.S. 27 yesterday, she stopped to pick up a bright orange reflective vest and dog repellant at Paul’s Discount just north of Somerset. A University of Illinois baseball cap was already perched on her head.
“The first 100 miles are the hardest, she joked after taking her first break, about 12 miles north of Somerset.
They were probably a lot harder 160 years ago.
McWorter left Kentucky in 1830 seeking greater opportunities in Illinois, after trading his saltpeter works for a son’s freedom. Moving by oxen-pulled covered wagon, he, his wife and those of their children who were free took the most direct route north for fear of re-enslavement.
“They had no protection,” explained Walker.
It was not a final departure for her great-great grandfather, however. He returned to Kentucky “again and again,” she said, as he purchased freedom for remaining family members.
In 1836, McWorter founded New Philadelphia in Pike County, Illinois, laying out the town’s 144 lots. He could not read or write.
Now, Walker hopes her Free Frank Historic Preservation Foundation can reconstruct New Philadelphia.
As successful as he was, Free Frank McWorter’s inspirational life is still virtually unknown, illustrating at least one point of Walker’s quest.
“We have a history of survival, that is what the history books show,” she said. “We need a history that will talk about the fact that some Black Americans did succeed.”
Not even Eric Barnes, president of Pulaski County’s Black History Club, knew about McWorter, Walker noted. Barnes was among a group who gathered yesterday morning to see her off on the trip.
“So how many other people as I go along the way will say, ‘Who is this Free Frank?’ And then begin the think, ‘We had someone like that in this county,’” she said.
“Black people, too, had a place in American history – they have a claim to one of the most important aspects of that history and that is the westward movement, the development of the frontier,” Walker added.
Examples like McWorter’s can help African Americans today, she said, by showing “that black people had a participation,”
“We have to begin to look at our history today from the perspective of a continued enslavement,” said Walker.
“Black Americans are still enslaved to a cycle of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and there’s a new slavery of drugs.”