Despite stringent Black Laws and slavery's presence in Illinois, free blacks were able to create meaningful communities throughout the state. Many free blacks lived among whites in established cities, such as Galena or Springfield. However, others sought predominantly black settlements, like Equal Rights, Brooklyn, Miller Grove and New Philadelphia, in which to live and work.
One of the latter group was Free Frank McWorter. McWorter was born a slave in 1777, but his owner-father allowed him to hire out his time and keep a portion of what he earned. In 1817, he was able to purchase his wife Lucy's freedom and two years later bought his own. He entered Illinois with his wife and their freeborn children in 1830 and settled on land he had purchased in Pike County, where he established New Philadelphia. Free Frank ultimately redeemed 16 family members from slavery.
Another community of free blacks was Miller Grove, established in 1844 in Pope County, within what is today's Shawnee National Forest. The residents, former slaves from Tennessee, were primarily farmers. The community was named for Bedford Miller who, at age 9, arrived in Miller Grove with his parents Harrison and Lucinda Miller. The Miller family had been freed by their former owners, Andrew Miller and his sister, Matilda.
In Jo Daviess County, Henry Smith — "Uncle Henry," as he also was known — was the pastor of Galena's Colored Union Baptist Church until it closed in the late 1850s. Smith, his family and several former parishioners moved to nearby Rush Township, where they established the town of Equal Rights and set up a school and church. Smith was a popular minister to both black and white congregations in the area, including nearby New Hope Church. By 1880, Equal Rights boasted 30 residents on 70 acres of farmland.