Sunday, December 27, 2009

Just finished reading - Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier by Juliet E.K. Walker

This Christmas holiday season has provided me with the opportunity to catch up on reading some books that I have had for quite some time but had not gotten around to reading. Its been the story of my life since I went back to college 10 years ago to get my history degree....too many books....too little time.

Dr. Juliet E.K. Walker is a direct descendant of "Free Frank" McWorter. She worked on what became this book while studying under the late renowned historian John Hope Franklin at the University of Chicago. She is now a history professor at the University of Texas.

The story of Free Frank is in many ways similar to that of William Johnson, a free black barber in Natchez Mississippi (see August 2, 2009 post). Both men used hard work and entrepreneurship to make a better life for themselves and their families. But, whereas Johnson remained in the slave South his entire life, Free Frank eventually made his way to the free state of Illinois.

Free Frank's biography is in itself amazing. Dr. Walker tells the story of Frank's life by using personal and legal papers handed down to descendants, as well as family oral history. She also deftly provides amazing context to the larger picture of what was happening in American history during Frank's long life.

Free Frank lived a life on the frontier. He was born in Union County, South Carolina in 1777. At this time upland South Carolina was much less populated than the tidewater part of the state and it was being claimed by whites from the Cherokees. Frank's father was evidently his white owner, George McWorther, and his mother was a West African-born slave named Juda. Frank's life would be a story of struggle from the first. Family tradition has it that Juda was sent to a nearby woods to deliver Free Frank by herself. Walker speculates that this might have been done for a number of reasons. McWorther may have wished his progeny to have the least possible chance of survival, or maybe he thought that Juda would somehow miscarry the infant if birthed in less than ideal conditions. But, Walker also explains that it wasn't unusual for slave women to birth children on their own, and that it may have been Juda's choice rather than the master's demand to have the child outside. Whatever the reason, Frank's birth was only the first obstacle he would have to hurdle.

Frank's childhood was not so unusual. He grew up doing the work of a slave child on McWorther's farm. Upland South Carolina was not a place of sprawling plantations. The 1790 census shows that Frank was one of five slaves owned by McWorther. In 1795 George McWother purchased land in what was then Lincoln County, Kentucky; it would eventually become Pulaski County. McWorther and Frank followed the Wilderness Road into Kentucky that year to work the new lands and make a new homestead. Frank was once again on the frontier. Kentucky had become a state in 1792, and settlement had proved rather rapid, but it was still a rural wilderness. A year after moving to Kentucky, Frank met Lucy, the woman who would become his wife in 1799. Lucy was owned by a different master, William Denham, but the couple were still allowed to marry although they did not live together for almost their first twenty years together.

In Kentucky, McWorther hired out Frank to other local farmers and Frank was allowed to keep part of his earnings. In 1815 George McWorther moved to south central Tennessee and Frank was left to run the Pulaski County farm. During the war of 1812, while Frank was running the farm independently, he took up the side venture of mining crude nitre from local caves in order to produce saltpeter,which was a main ingredient in making gun powder. Gunpowder was an important commodity on the frontier and the second war against England. Through his hiring out and individual mining enterprise Frank eventually saved up enough money to by his wife in 1817 for $800. He most likely bought her first since any more children that she had would then be free. McWorther had died in 1815 and Frank naturally fell into ownership of McWother's heirs. Frank had proven his ability over the years and was fortunately allowed to remain running the profitable farm in Kentucky. During these years he expanded his mining operation, eventually moving his principle market to a larger Danville, Kentucky and continued to save his money. He finally purchased his own freedom in 1819 for the same price he had paid for Lucy. Now a free man, "Free Frank" bought property, continued mining, and dealt in livestock.

Over the following years Frank would continue to purchase his children that had been born in slavery. In the late 1820s he started selling off his Kentucky lands, and in 1830 he purchased land in sparsely settled Pike County, Illinois and moved Lucy and four of their children there that year; he was 53 years old. He bought other adjacent land while in Illinois and continued to purchase his children that had been left in Kentucky slavery. In 1836 he platted out a town that he hoped would eventually become a booming location. Although Frank could not read or write, he seemed capable of attaining any wish he had. Frank had a map drawn up for the town and sold some of the lots that housed some stores and merchants, but the town never took off like he had hoped.

Frank eventually had his name legally changed to Frank McWorter, not McWorther, as was his former master's name. When he died in 1854 at age 77, he had purchased himself and the freedom of sixteen members of his family (children, grandchildren, sons and daughters-in-law)at a cost of almost $14,000.

Dr. Walker states sums up Frank's story well in the concluding paragraph of her introduction to this book. "Free Frank's life as a slave, his activities to free himself and his family, the westward move to settle an undeveloped wilderness, and his establishment of a town take on a new historical significance when seen within the context of the broader society in which he lived. This study is one of the few biographies of an illiterate black man whose life began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century with the birth of a nation, and whose experiences bridged not only two centuries but two worlds-slave and free.

This 173 page book is an informative and entertaining read. The research that Walker used in the families papers that have survived as well as with county, state, and national government records is impressive. This unique story is an inspiration to what can be accomplished through hard work and appropriately applied ambition....and the desire for liberty.

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