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I was all set to write a diary on unemployment and how valuable it is, owing to I was unemployed for three months this year thanks to government inaction, and then I went hunting for word histories and happened upon this:

 photo peculiar.jpg

That red boxed item got me thinking.

I was raised on the assumption that when someone back in the day -- 1850s back in the day -- talked about "our peculiar institution," he -- usually he -- was offering a tiny apology for slavery. "It may be peculiar, but it's ours, ... and it's here to stay."

Words ... change. I know this more than many people because I collect word origins for a living. For example, pollution used to be how one referred to ejaculate -- and copious pollution was just as supposedly masculine a thing then (16th century Spain) as it is now.

Cattle's story is interesting. The part I care about for current purposes is that cow, the plural of cattle -- an unrelated word, incidentally -- was once cu.

Pecu-liar. That pecu there is cattle, which back in the day -- 1200s -- meant "I own that thing that's walking on my grass." Goats, horses, heifers, all cattle.

Fast-forward a few centuries to "our peculiar institution."

Peculiar doesn't mean strange. It means "these people we own":

"Peculiar," as it modified "institution" in both popular and political antebellum discourse, meant particular to, the private property of, from the Latin peculiaris, "not held in common with others," and peculium, "private property," especially "property in cattle" (the pecu of peculiar).
We could vomit over this for however long, examining the uses that clearly refer to property and the uses that hinge more on "thing about us," ...

Or we could move on to Free Frank McWorter, who bought his wife's freedom when he was 40, bought his own freedom two years later and went about buying his children's and grandchildren's freedom with money from the city he'd founded, which was racially integrated when that didn't happen.

Roughly 80 years before Brown, this town had an integrated school:

The integrated schoolhouse, constructed about 1874, stood outside of New Philadelphia northeast of North Street. The land was part of Frank McWorter’s original real estate holdings (Matteson 1964:20; Shackel 2006:Chapter 2). According to local residents, the schoolhouse was the scene of many social and cultural activities (Matteson 1984:19-21).


We are most of us fortunately unable to imagine thinking up a business by which we might make enough money to buy our relatives. Free Frank McWorter secured his last name when he was 60, a year after he bought the land and incorporated New Philadelphia. He had bought his freedom eighteen years before, and he had been buying his relatives' freedom in the years since.

At Career Day, or whatever your school called it, I bet nobody wanted to make enough money to buy anyone's freedom. The notion today is as despicable as it is laughable. People are free by default.

But for Frank, who was born before America has fought and won its freedom and who died before he no longer had to buy his relatives' freedom, the default was thinking of ways to make enough money and find enough legal and physical security to not be like every other black family in the 1830s.

Scroll down to page ninety-four and look at the name changes.

On the next page is more reality:

The money paid for the land could instead be added to the savings to purchase an additional family member.
... government surveys and contemporary private descriptions show that the land purchased by Free Frank and his sons was all first-rate.
The book is fascinating, gloriously more detailed than I could hope to be here, including in describing how Lucy McWorter helped raise the money to buy that land and her children and grandchildren. Part of the reason it is so rich is that the writer is one of McWorter's great-great-granddaughters, and part of the reason is that she is very good at what she does. Her goal is not to present an emotional retelling of the story. Her goal is to present the facts so the reader will supply the emotion, such as in this passage:
By purchasing and emancipating Solomon, his second son, Free Frank had accomplished part of his goal. Yet there still remained as slaves in Kentucky his two daughters and their children. While he was in Pulaski County, Free Frank doubtlessly again reassured the owners that he would return and purchase them, too. But another eight years would pass before that would occur.
He would return, eight years and 500 miles later (though this site indicates the distance as 300 miles).



New Philadelphia is now uninhabited, and Frank McWorter died in 1854. But despite his too-small corner of history, Frank McWorter and his legacy are doing pretty well.

New Philadelphia is on the National Register of Historic Places. McWorter's grave, near Barry, Ill., mere miles from the town he founded, is one of three Illinois graves designated on the register. The others belong to President Lincoln and Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas.

On Jan. 16, 2009, the New Philadelphia Town Site -- the first town incorporated by a black American -- was approved as a National Historic Landmark.

On Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated president.

Originally posted to iampunha on Tue Jan 14, 2014 at 05:18 PM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

    •  I immerse myself... (12+ / 0-)

      ...in history, almost daily, in an effort to find 'us' as people. I breathe etymology in order to understand the meaning of history.

      I was completely unaware of the specific roots of "peculiar." Fascinating, especially in light of the "traditional" meaning of that phrase.

      No tip, but I rec'd the diary!

      "Wealthy the Spirit which knows its own flight. Stealthy the Hunter who slays his own fright. Blessed is the Traveler who journeys the length of the Light."

      by CanisMaximus on Tue Jan 14, 2014 at 05:43:03 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Like h*ll! Not to tip for such wonderful (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Fiona West

      diaries would be an offense. Thank you!

      •  :) (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        pixxer

        I used to really love tips, but I would set my diary to post at whatever o'clock and then check back and see however many tips and four comments.

        And the comments were always two kinds:

        "Boy I love your writing."

        "Here is another person to add to that historical story."

        The former is nice. The latter is intellectual pornography.

        In a comment to another diary, a friend of some years threw a Mississippi voting rights name at me. Might I have found it without her help? Enh, perhaps. But now I can more purposefully look at that name and those associated with it -- seeking a branch of the story I perhaps didn't know to look down so thoroughly.

        Feedback is always lovely. But your comment is worth more than the forty-one tips I have gotten.

        "Homeless veteran" should be an oxymoron.
        "Please know that I accept you and yours with no need for explanation of [any] kind." -Translator

        by iampunha on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 02:57:37 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Your writing is engaging and keeps me reading. (0+ / 0-)

          That means I learn from your whole diary, not just the first few paragraphs. I read both of your offerings on the rec/rescue lists today, and they were just wonderfully written, and full of important information. I'm going to send the bus boycott one to my brother, who is a big Rosa Parks fan. I think he will be fascinated, as I was.

          •  The bus boycott one is going to get updated (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            pixxer

            so get ready to copy and paste another link to your brother. I got a tip from a diarist with a degree in black history, and through a bit of poking, I found a boycott -- successful -- from 1870.

            You'll note that's 26 years before Plessy. And there's more -- Plessy was preceded by a legal victory against segregation laws.

            More later, when my wife lets me wade through another five or six hours of documents to uncover ... wait. Who protested before Elizabeth Jennings in 1854?

            (No, seriously. Why didn't I look?)

            "Homeless veteran" should be an oxymoron.
            "Please know that I accept you and yours with no need for explanation of [any] kind." -Translator

            by iampunha on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 09:40:14 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for this terrible lesson in etymology. (8+ / 0-)

    I live under the bridge to the 21st Century.

    by Crashing Vor on Tue Jan 14, 2014 at 06:00:44 PM PST

  •  Ah, I did not know that (5+ / 0-)

    and now I do! Thank you. Very interesting.

    "YOPP!" --Horton Hears a Who

    by Reepicheep on Tue Jan 14, 2014 at 06:17:43 PM PST

  •  I did tip you because (4+ / 0-)

    you hooked me. Great writing, which will lead me to the source(s) themselves. I happen to have found a very old gift card for a bookstore down the block from where I work, and I now know what to get with it...

    I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake. ― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

    by dannyboy1 on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 05:28:40 AM PST

    •  Were we not still recovering from (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      rat racer

      unemployment, I'd have fetched two books from yesterday's reading: that Walker book on Free Frank McWorter -- and I don't understand why that isn't a dramatic movie -- and "Slavery and Social Death," which if I didn't link it is http://books.google.com/....

      "Homeless veteran" should be an oxymoron.
      "Please know that I accept you and yours with no need for explanation of [any] kind." -Translator

      by iampunha on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 07:06:39 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thank you. nt (0+ / 0-)

        I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake. ― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

        by dannyboy1 on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 07:34:51 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  I looked for the Walker book at our public library (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Ahianne

        and don't find it in the data base, so have suggested it be purchased. Here are the details: Free Frank, A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier, Lexington: U. Press of Kentucky, 1983 by Juliet E. K. Walker. Also in paperback, 1995, it's available on Amazon.  In my request, I included this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/...

        The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. -- Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944

        by ybruti on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 09:15:59 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Your public librarian (4+ / 0-)

          might benefit from knowing specifically, for example, about McWorter being on the level of Lincoln and Douglas in terms of NHRP grave recognition. A library that has even brief biographies about them should have McWorter.

          "Homeless veteran" should be an oxymoron.
          "Please know that I accept you and yours with no need for explanation of [any] kind." -Translator

          by iampunha on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 11:57:17 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Why would Mr. McWorter do this? (7+ / 0-)

    After all, slaves didn't have it so bad in the South.

    I know that's true because Rush said so.

    Seriously, wonderful diary, thank you for posting.

    Your black cards can make you money, so you hide them when you're able; in the land of milk and honey, you must put them on the table - Steely Dan

    by OrdinaryIowan on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 10:05:48 AM PST

  •  Thank you so much for this fascinating diary. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jakkalbessie, Ahianne

    Learning new stuff is one of the great things DKos has to offer.  

    This brought tears to my eyes and they're still flowing down my cheeks:

    McWorter's grave, near Barry, Ill., mere miles from the town he founded, is one of three Illinois graves designated on the register. The others belong to President Lincoln and Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas.

    We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately. B. Franklin

    by Observerinvancouver on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 12:02:29 PM PST

    •  I wrote it to cause (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Observerinvancouver, Ahianne

      what I have recently been calling personal rain, after something I may write about in time, but not right now.

      So much of this stuff is so desperately sad -- I'm researching the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, and I keep finding farther-backs to go to for "the start" -- that I feel like the best way for me to use that frustration at the limitations so many people have faced for terrible reasons is to elevate them beyond the people who limited them.

      A white Frank McWorter, or a Frank McWorter born in another era, could have made such a pile of money using his wits and such. Instead, fully two dozen McWorters were freed because of that money. That legacy credits a few people highly and says silently disparaging things about many more people whose names and histories are omitted from most records.

      "Homeless veteran" should be an oxymoron.
      "Please know that I accept you and yours with no need for explanation of [any] kind." -Translator

      by iampunha on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 03:51:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very nice. ;) (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rat racer

    You and your love of words.  =)

  •  Just proves you don't need gub'mint! (0+ / 0-)

    See, Free Frank didn't need restrictive governments to give him his rights!  With hard work and a little bit of pluck he BOUGHT his own freedom!  It just proves that most slaves were LAZY!  (just like most grad students who aren't willing to live in a van to save money)

    These stories are amazing and inspiring. But they are dangerous if used improperly because they can convince some that hard work is all you need.  

    Every time we tell these inspiring stories, we also need to put them into context. Maybe X number of slaves escaped on the underground railroad.  But how many times that number were killed trying to escape?

    Please don't take this as a criticism, I was impressed and inspired by your story.

    One man gathers what another man spills

    by John Chapman on Wed Jan 15, 2014 at 08:58:30 PM PST

    •  :) (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      worldlotus

      "Maybe X number of slaves escaped on the underground railroad.  But how many times that number were killed trying to escape?

      Please don't take this as a criticism, I was impressed and inspired by your story."

      You kidding? Now I have something to research for another diary. I just can't promise the resulting diary will be about Underground Railroad deaths. I may in researching this discover someone who ought to be more known than Minty Ross -- Harriet Tubman -- but isn't.

      There's a name in the story of Oberlin as an Underground Railroad location. Something about a black child -- the memory's really fuzzy; I wrote that diary years ago -- being in a crowd and then just sort of evaporating into the pro-freedom ether of Canada and not being found again. Maybe I will poke that story with a stick and see what giggles.

      "Homeless veteran" should be an oxymoron.
      "Please know that I accept you and yours with no need for explanation of [any] kind." -Translator

      by iampunha on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 03:39:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  My daughter's Oberlin dorm had a hiding-station (0+ / 0-)

        Great story!!

        My daughter went to Oberlin and lived several years in Russian House, a small dorm in a very old house. It had been used as a station on the Underground Railroad, and you could still see the hiding-place built into the house. There are several stories of Oberlin's role in that era, including a book on how one of those conflicts helped to exacerbate the South's fears that eventually started the Civil War.

    •  Some think "Hard work is all you need" ... (0+ / 0-)

      Yes, some people are quick to assume that.  But hard work wasn't enough for an enslaved person to buy his freedom.  His "master" had to allow him to work for someone else, over and above his assigned work at home, and had to allow him to keep the money -- which was entirely up to the master.  From what I've read, it was generally slaves with some special skills -- experienced carpenters or blacksmiths or such -- who were sometimes allowed to earn money.  Other slave-owners would rent the slave out to make money for themselves.

      So it took random luck for Free Frank McWorter to get started on his long process of emancipating himself and his family.  And hard work too, and no doubt incredible self-discipline over years for him to save enough money to buy his relatives' freedom and buy land as well.  

      I wonder what kind of work he did.

      --------------------- “These are troubling times. Corporation are treated like people. People are treated like things. …And if we ever needed to vote, we sure do need to vote now.” -- Rev. Dr. William J. Barber

      by Fiona West on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 03:53:13 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  He did a lot (0+ / 0-)

        He ran a fair number of businesses:

        1) Selling land -- and safety from being brought back to slavery.
        2) Selling saltpeter. He bought his freedom from his master with saltpeter profits and then bought one of his sons for the business.
        3) Farming. Piles and piles of farming. Corn, sure, but also cheese, which his wife helped piles with. Once he had his son Solomon working with him, he was able to prepare far more land for crops and thus dramatically increase his profits.

        Frank McWorter was very lucky to have not only an owner who let him buy his relatives but to have those relatives be sold to owners who sold McWorters to him and didn't then arrange for same relatives to be kidnapped and brought back under false fugitive pretenses.

        "Homeless veteran" should be an oxymoron.
        "Please know that I accept you and yours with no need for explanation of [any] kind." -Translator

        by iampunha on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 05:47:12 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Great Point (0+ / 0-)
        But hard work wasn't enough for an enslaved person to buy his freedom.  His "master" had to allow him to work for someone else, over and above his assigned work at home, and had to allow him to keep the money -- which was entirely up to the master.
        I think that, from a messaging standpoint, it is a good idea to include these observations whenever we tell a story that can be interpreted as "hard work accomplishes all."  It may take a little bit of polish off of the story, but it helps us remember that disadvantaged people are, well, disadvantaged.

        One man gathers what another man spills

        by John Chapman on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 11:02:01 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

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