Groundbreaking Special Exhibition "Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia" Opens in February 2023November 3, 2022
More than 100 Historic Artifacts from Across the Country Come Together in the First Major Museum Exhibition on James Forten’s Life and Family
“James Forten is not the most well-known of Revolutionary War-era patriots, but his story is an essential American story.” – The Philadelphia Inquirer
A groundbreaking new special exhibition, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, will bring together – for the first time in a major museum exhibition – more than 100 historical artifacts to tell the inspiring story of free Black Philadelphian James Forten and his family’s tireless pursuit of liberty and equality from the Revolutionary era through the Civil War and Reconstruction. The exhibition will be on view exclusively at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia from February 11, 2023, through November 26, 2023, and is included with regular Museum admission.
James Forten (1766-1842) was born free in Philadelphia – just a block from where the Museum now stands – and heard the words of the Declaration of Independence read aloud for the first time on July 8, 1776. Of the more than 500,000 people of African descent living in the United States at the time, more than 90 percent were enslaved; James Forten was part of a small but growing population of free people of African descent.
At just 14 years of age, Forten joined a privateer ship to fight for American independence during the Revolutionary War. He was captured and held captive on a British prison ship for seven long months before being freed during a prisoner exchange. He later became a successful business owner, philanthropist, and abolitionist, and raised a large family with his wife Charlotte Vandine Forten.
Using objects, documents, and immersive environments, Black Founders will explore the Forten family’s roles in the Revolutionary War, business in Philadelphia, and the abolitionist movement from 1776 to 1876, including helping to start both the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. During those 100 years, the family also took an active role in defending voting rights and civil liberties for African Americans. The exhibit will focus on three generations of the Forten family, from James Forten and Charlotte Vandine Forten to their children and grandchildren, who supported the Union cause during the American Civil War.
Created by the Museum’s in-house curatorial team, the exhibition will feature over 100 historical artifacts, works of art, and documents from nearly 40 lenders and 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.
“James Forten embodied so many characteristics we admire as Americans— he was brave and entrepreneurial; he persevered through great adversity, prejudice, and loss; and he was dedicated to family, community, and nation,” said Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, Museum President and CEO. “He was well known and admired by his fellow Philadelphians, but he is not as widely remembered today as he should be. We are thrilled to introduce a broader audience to the story of James Forten and his remarkable family, who worked tirelessly to ensure that all people could enjoy the Revolution’s promises of liberty, equality, and a role in their own governance.”
The exhibit also will feature videos, audio experiences, and tactile interactives, including a partial recreation of James Forten’s sailmaking workshop that visitors can step inside to discover replica tools and a workbench like those used by Forten. Visitors will encounter a scale model of the Royal Louis, the privateer ship that Forten served aboard in 1781, as well as a touchable cannon from the 1700s. Visitors of all ages will be able to try on clothing like that worn by 18th-century sailors, similar to what James Forten wore as a teenaged sailor during the Revolutionary War.
At a listening station, visitors will hear the music of Francis Johnson, James Forten’s friend and the first African American composer to publish his compositions. The music is performed by pianist Steven Page, multi-instrumentalist B.E. Farrow, vocalist Candace Potts of the Jeremy Winston Chorale, and the Chestnut Brass Company, and includes “The Grave of a Slave,” a poem written by James Forten’s daughter Sarah Louisa Forten that Francis Johnson set to music.
Also featured in the exhibition will be a recent painting, titled “Brave Men as Ever Fought,” by nationally renowned historical artist Don Troiani, which depicts a 15-year-old James Forten looking on as Black and Native American troops in the ranks of the Continental Army’s Rhode Island Regiment marched west through Philadelphia on September 2, 1781. The painting was commissioned by the Museum with funding provided by the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail of the National Park Service.
A raised tactile version of the “Brave Men as Ever Fought” painting will be available for use by guests who are blind or low vision, created and donated by Clovernook Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired.
Key Artifacts on Display:
- A Philadelphia-made table (1790-1805) once owned by James Forten, on loan to the Museum from a step-descendant of the Forten family and his wife.
- Two needlework samplers (1817 and 1822) stitched by James Forten’s daughters, Margaretta and Mary Isabella Forten, which have now been in the possession of seven generations of the family.
- A pew (1805-1841) from Mother Bethel AME Church, which was likely in use at the church at the time that James Forten presided over an 1817 meeting on whether Philadelphia’s Black community should or should not support colonization in Africa.
- One of five surviving journals written by Charlotte L. Forten, James Forten’s granddaughter (later known as Charlotte Forten Grimké). It covers the year 1863 when Forten was down in South Carolina teaching formerly enslaved people during the Civil War. The journal is on loan from the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.
- A silk flag for the 127th Regiment of United States Colored Troops, painted by Philadelphia artist David Bustill Bowser, will be on loan from Atlanta History Center.
- A portrait of James Forten, painted by an unidentified artist, from the 1820s or 1830s. It is on loan from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
- The only surviving photograph of James Forten’s wife Charlotte Vandine Forten, taken in Philadelphia in the 1860s and on loan from the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University.
- James Forten’s earliest surviving letter, written in January 1800, on loan from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
- Baptismal register (1795-1837) from the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, which documents the baptisms of James Forten and his future wife, Charlotte Vandine, and five of their children.
- A historic Bible (circa 1838) owned by the Forten family, on loan from Atwood “Kip” Forten Jacobs, James Forten’s great-great-great-great-grandson.
Special Programming & Additional Resources:
- Programs and Events: The exhibition will come to life with a rich slate of special events and daily programs, including family-friendly activities, as well as evening speakers and events exploring the historic and contemporary relevance of the exhibition. For upcoming events, visit www.amrevmuseum.org/at-the-museum/events.
- Theatrical Performance: Accompanying the exhibition, an original first-person theatrical performance will dramatize the experiences of free Black Philadelphian James Forten, who joined a privateer ship to serve during the Revolutionary War and later became a prominent businessperson and abolitionist. The performance will take place on weekends in the Alan B. Miller Theater.
- Family Guide: 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 and a James Forten Discovery Cart.
- Educator Resources: For students and teachers, virtual distance learning programs and teacher professional development opportunities focusing on this story will be available later this year. A teacher resource guide will debut in early 2022.
- Virtual Tour: A virtual version of the exhibition will be made available to digital explorers from around the world through a free 360-degree virtual tour, which is scheduled to launch in spring 2023 and will remain permanently available.
- Audio Tour: An audio tour (with transcriptions) will be available for $5 per handheld device ($3 for Members).
- Guided Tours: Guided tours are available for adults and students. A guided virtual tour of the special exhibit will also be available. To book, contact [email protected] or call 267.579.3623.
- Walking Tours: 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.
- Exhibition Catalog: A catalog of the exhibit will be available in Spring 2023 in the Museum’s shop onsite and online.
Black Founders will be open daily from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. The 5,000 square-foot exhibition will be located in the Museum’s first-floor Patriots Gallery. Access to the exhibition is included with regular Museum admission. Tickets can be purchased at AmRevMuseum.org, by calling 215.253.6731, or at the front desk. Children ages 5 and under are free. All tickets are valid for two consecutive days. Group tickets for parties of 15 or more are available for a reduced price by calling 267.579.3623. Memberships are also available online or by calling 215.454.2030.
Black Founders is presented by Bank of America, Comcast NBCUniversal, and George C. and Esther Ann McFarland Foundation, with additional support from Morris W. Offit, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Agency, American Heritage Credit Union, Claudia and Richard Balderston, Aliya Browne and Reginald M. Browne, The Haverford Trust Company, Neubauer Family Foundation, PECO, Philip Syng Reese, and Visit Philadelphia.
About Museum of the American Revolution
The Museum of the American Revolution uncovers and shares compelling stories about the diverse people and complex events that sparked America’s ongoing experiment in liberty, equality, and self-government. Through the Museum’s unmatched collection, immersive galleries, powerful theater experiences, and interactive elements, visitors gain a deeper appreciation for how this nation came to be and feel inspired to consider their role in ensuring that the promise of the American Revolution endures. Located just steps away from Independence Hall, the Museum serves as a portal to the region’s many Revolutionary sites, sparking interest, providing context, and encouraging exploration. The Museum, which opened on April 19, 2017, is a private, non-profit, and non-partisan organization. For more information, visit www.AmRevMuseum.org or call 877.740.1776.