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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 our special exhibition, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, the Museum introduced 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 explored 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 featured 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 were on view for the very first time in a public exhibit. 

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

Three children use replica tools in a recreated sail loft in the Museum's Black Founders exhibit.

Depicting James Forten's Life Through Theater

Accompanying the exhibition, two original 20-minute first-person theatrical performances written by playwright Marissa Kennedy dramatized the life and experiences of James Forten. Meet Young James Forten was portrayed by actor Nathan Alford-Tate and told the story of teenaged Forten joining a privateer ship to serve during the Revolutionary War. A filmed version of the performance is now available to watch online any time. Meet Elder James Forten was portrayed by actor Steve Crum and followed a 72-year-old Forten as he reflected on the progress and challenges of his lifetime.

Left, Meet Young James Forten performance starring Nathan Alford-Tate. Right, Meet Elder James Forten performance starring Steve Crum.
Nathan Alford-Tate (left) portrays young James Forten. Steve Crum (right) portrays elder James Forten.

Additional Educational & Special Offerings

  • 360-Degree Virtual Tour: Black Founders is available to virtual visitors from around the world through a 360-degree virtual tour and will remain permanently available online.
  • Audio Tour: An audio tour, along with transcriptions, was available on sanitized hand-held devices for $5 for general admission visitors and $3 for Museum Members. 
  • Exhibition Catalog: A richly illustrated exhibition catalog was available for purchase in the Museum Shop and online
  • Guided & Walking Tours: For adults, 60-minute guided tours of the exhibition were available for private bookings and 45-minute guided tours were available for student and youth groups. A guided virtual tour of the special exhibit is also available. A Black Founders-themed neighborhood walking tour introduced visitors to sites of the city's Black history in the Revolutionary era, including the site of James Forten's family home near Fourth and Lombard Streets and Mother Bethel AME Church.
  • Educator Resources: For students and teachers, virtual distance learning programs and virtual and onsite teacher professional development opportunities based on Black Founders were available. An educator resource guide, along with modular activities, high-quality images, ready-made worksheets, and a map of Forten’s Philadelphia are available for free.
  • For Kids & Families: Families could 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 included try-on clothing carts, pop-up talks, and a discovery cart with replica objects related to Forten’s story. 
  • Guest Content: Read posts from experts in their fields related to Black Founders, including scholar Dr. Janice Sumler Edmond on the past 50 years of scholarship on the Forten family from her dissertation in the 1970s to the Museum's exhibit, family-run traditional sailmakers Force 10 Sailmaking & Rigging on the similarities and differences of the craft from the 18th century and today, and a Q&A with conservators who worked on artifacts before they were displayed in the exhibit Additional content explored artifacts on loan to the exhibit from Forten family descendants as well as from Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.
  • Special Programs: There were a number of special lectures and discussions that coincided with the Black Founders special exhibition that are available to watch online. In March 2023, Dr. Kerri Greenidge discussed her book, The Grimkes, as part of AmRev Presents. In April 2023, Dr. Julie Winch joined us for our Read the Revolution Speaker Series to discuss her book, A Gentleman of Color, alongside Forten descendant Atwood "Kip" Forten Jacobs. In May 2023, we welcomed The Jeremy Winston Chorale for a special musical performance inspired by the Forten family and the music of Francis Johnson. In June 2023, author Eric Jay Dolin discussed his book, Rebels at Sea, and Howard University's Lela Sewell-Williams and Rebecca Shipman talked about the legacy of the Forten women as part of a Member Lunch & Learn event. Finally, in October 2023, Museum Board member Karla Trotman hosted a panel discussion about the Forten's legacy of entrepreneurship in Philadelphia.

This exhibit was dedicated to our beloved colleague, Denise Valentine (1959-2020), a passionate educator and exceptional storyteller.

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Dr. R Scott Stephenson moderates a conversation with James Forten descendant Kip Forten Jacobs and Dr. Julie Winch.
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Watch Dr. Julie Winch's April 2023 discussion on her book, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten, where she was joined by Forten descendant Atwood "Kip" Forten Jacobs.
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The Jeremy Winston Chorale performs at the Museum of the American Revolution.
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Watch the Jeremy Winston Chorale's May 2023 performance inspired by the Museum's special exhibition, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia.
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Dr. Kerri Greenidge discusses her award-winning book The Grimkes at the Museum.
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Watch Dr. Kerri Greenidge discuss her award-winning book, The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, at the Museum in March 2023.
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