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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 new special exhibition Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, the Museum introduces 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 explores 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 features 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 are on view for the very first time in a public exhibit. 

The exhibit features videos, audio experiences, and tactile interactives, including a partial recreation of James Forten’s sailmaking workshop. Visitors of all ages are 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 dramatize the life and experiences of James Forten. Meet Young James Forten is portrayed by actor Nathan Alford-Tate and tells 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 is portrayed by actor Steve Crum and follows a 72-year-old Forten as he reflects on the progress and challenges of his lifetime.

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.

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 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, is available on sanitized hand-held devices for $5 for general admission visitors and $3 for Museum Members. 
  • Exhibition Catalog: A richly illustrated exhibition catalog is available for purchase in the Museum Shop and online
  • Guided & Walking Tours: For adults, 60-minute guided tours of the exhibition are available for private bookings and 45-minute guided tours are 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 Black Founders-themed neighborhood walking tour introduces 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 are available. An educator resource guide, along with modular activities, high-quality images, ready-made worksheets, and a map of Forten’s Philadelphia are now available for free. Limited printed copies are also 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 include try-on clothing carts, pop-up talks, and a discovery cart with replica objects related to Forten’s story. 

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

Exhibit Black Founders Sponsor Lockup With Media

Black Founders Exhibit Catalog is now available to purchase in the Museum Shop and online.

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