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… an essential American story
The Philadelphia Inquirer

When James Forten walked the streets of 1770s Philadelphia as a young man, he was surrounded by the sights and sounds of transformation. He heard the words of the Declaration of Independence read aloud for the first time in 1776 before setting sail to fight for independence in 1781. Born a free person of African descent, Forten built upon his coming-of-age in a revolutionary city and his wartime experience to forge himself into a changemaker in Philadelphia and the young United States, becoming a successful businessman, philanthropist, and stalwart abolitionist.

In the upcoming 2023 special exhibition Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, the Museum will introduce visitors to Forten and his descendants as they navigated the American Revolution and cross-racial relationships in Philadelphia to become leaders in the abolition movement in the lead-up to the Civil War and the women's suffrage movement. Using objects, documents, and immersive environments, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia will explore the Forten family’s roles in the Revolutionary War, business in Philadelphia, and abolition and voting rights from 1776 to 1876.

The unique journey and exceptional story of this family of Revolutionaries explores the legacy of the American Revolution, the history of the American experiment of liberty, equality, and self-government, and the ongoing work to improve the nation’s dedication to the principle that “all men are created equal.”

Artifacts & Immersive Experiences

The exhibit will feature more than 100 historical artifacts, works of art, and documents from 38 different lenders, including both institutions and private collectors, as well as the Museum’s own collection. Rare historical objects on loan from descendants of the Forten family will be on view for the very first time in a public exhibit. 

The exhibit will feature videos, audio experiences, and tactile interactives, including a partial recreation of James Forten’s sailmaking workshop. Visitors of all ages will be able to try on recreations of sailors clothing, similar to what James Forten wore as a teenaged sailor during the Revolutionary War. 

Actor Nathan Alford-Tate depicts a sailor in a blue coat holding a sailmaking fid in our Meet James Forten first-person theatrical performance.
Actor Nathan Alford-Tate delivers a performance of Meet James Forten from Revolution Place to a virtual school group audience in December 2021.

Depicting James Forten's Life Through Theater

Accompanying the exhibition, two original first-person theatrical performances written by playwright Marissa Kennedy will dramatize the experiences of both a teenaged (portrayed by actor Nathan Alford-Tate) and an elder free Black Philadelphian James Forten, who joined a privateer ship to serve during the Revolutionary War and later became a prominent businessperson and abolitionist. A filmed version of the performance will be made accessible online.

Live virtual versions of the performances, which include a question-and-answer session with the actor and a Museum educator, are available to be booked by school groups. To book, contact [email protected] or 267.579.3623.

Additional Educational & Special Offerings

  • 360-Degree Virtual Tour: Black Founders will be made available to virtual visitors from around the world through a 360-degree virtual tour, which is scheduled to launch in Spring 2023 and will remain permanently available online.
  • Audio Tour: An audio tour (along with transcriptions) will be available on sanitized hand-held devices for $5 for general admission visitors and $3 for Museum Members. 
  • Exhibition Catalog: A richly illustrated exhibition catalog will be available for purchase in the Museum Shop and online. 
  • Guided & Walking Tours: For adults, 60-minute guided tours of the exhibition will be available for private bookings and 45-minute guided tours will be available for student and youth groups. A guided virtual tour of the special exhibit will also be available. To book, contact [email protected] or 267.579.3623. A James Forten-themed neighborhood walking tour will introduce visitors to sites that were important to Forten’s life and legacy, including the site of his family’s home near Fourth and Lombard Streets.
  • Educator Resources: For students and teachers, virtual distance learning programs and virtual and onsite teacher professional development opportunities based on Black Founders will be available in 2023. An educator resource guide, along with modular activities, high-quality images, ready-made worksheets, and a map of Forten’s Philadelphia will be available for free on the Museum’s website. Limited printed copies will also be available.
  • Group Visits: Group tickets are available at a discounted price. To book, contact [email protected] or 267.579.3623.
  • For Kids & Families: Families can enjoy the special exhibition with a printed family guide full of activities, along with a scavenger hunt for younger visitors. Hands-on activities for visitors to the exhibition will include try-on clothing carts, pop-up talks, and a discovery cart with replica objects related to Forten’s story. 

Exhibit Black Founders Sponsor Lockup With Media

"... an essential American story" Read more about the Museum's upcoming special exhibition from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia exhibit graphic featuring a portrait of James Forten.
Feb 11

Opening Weekend of Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia Special Exhibit

February 11 & 12, 2023
Join the Museum for the opening weekend of our newest special exhibition Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, which will introduce visitors to James Forten and his descendants as they navigated the American Revolution and cross-racial relationships in Philadelphia to become leaders in the abolition movement in the lead-up to the Civil War and the women's suffrage movement.
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Behind the scenes of installation of the Black Founders exhibit installing a photograph of Charlotte Vandine Forten.
Mar 24

AmRev Presents: Black Founders Women’s History Night with Kerri Greenidge

March 24, 2023 from 5:15-8 p.m.
Join Dr. Kerri K. Greenidge, author of The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, for an evening discussion on our Black Founders exhibit, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and more.
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Book cover of A Gentleman of Color book alongside headshots of Julie Winch and Kip Forten Jacobs.
Apr 12

Read the Revolution Speaker Series with Julie Winch, Featuring Atwood "Kip" Forten Jacobs

April 12, 2023 from 6:30-8 p.m.
Historian Dr. Julie Winch joins the Museum to reflect on her groundbreaking biography, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten, and will be joined by Forten's great-great-great-great grandson, Atwood “Kip” Forten Jacobs.
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