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Black Founders Marks the First Major Museum Exhibition on James Forten’s Life and Family

A Virtual Tour of the Exhibit Will Remain Permanently Available Online

Only two months remain to see the Museum of the American Revolution’s groundbreaking special exhibition Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, which runs through Nov. 26, 2023, exclusively at the Museum. Called “an essential American story” by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the exhibition is the first major museum exhibition to tell the inspiring story of free Black Philadelphian James Forten and his remarkable family, from the Revolutionary era through the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is included with regular Museum admission.

The exhibition brings together more than 100 historical artifacts, works of art, textiles, and documents from nearly 40 lenders and 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, including a family Bible that was recently donated to the Museum by descendants of James Forten.

This “thoughtful exhibition…unearths the largely unsung role of one black family in both that war and subsequent U.S. civil-rights struggles.” – Wall Street Journal

Black Founders explores the Forten family’s roles in the Revolutionary War, business in Philadelphia, and the abolitionist movement from 1776 to 1876, including their roles in 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 focuses 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.

The exhibit also features videos, audio experiences, and tactile interactives, including a partial recreation of James Forten’s sail-making workshop that visitors can step inside to discover replica tools and a workbench like those used by Forten. Visitors of all ages can try on clothing like that worn by 18th-century sailors, similar to what James Forten wore as a teenaged sailor during the Revolutionary War. Newly installed in the exhibit in August, visitors can view 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. 

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At a listening station, visitors can 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 Nicole 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 L. Forten that Francis Johnson set to music.

Upcoming Black Founders Events:

  • On Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, from 6-8:30 p.m., the Museum will host A Black Founders Legacy of Entrepreneurship, an evening panel discussion and reception inspired by the historical legacies of Black entrepreneurship presented in Black Founders. The panel discussion, moderated by Karla Trotman, CEO and owner of Electro Soft, Inc., who serves on the Museum’s Board of Directors and Black Founders Exhibition Committee, will explore how James Forten’s successful enterprises, philanthropic mission, and influential networks connect with Black founders of Philadelphia businesses today.
  • On Sunday, Nov. 5, 2023, at 9:30 a.m., Museum Members can take a Members-only, 45-minute guided tour of our special exhibition, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, before it closes on Nov. 26. Members can register for free here.

“The exhibit offers a unique and sweepingly cinematic perspective of this country's founding, as witnessed by James Forten... all Americans can learn a lot from this family today.” – Broad Street Review

Additional Black Founders Resources:

  • Documentary Film: Inspired by the Museum's special exhibit, WHYY produced a 28-minute film that explores the story of the Fortens, one of Philadelphia’s most influential early African American families. The documentary premiered on Juneteenth in 2023. It was produced as part of WHYY's Movers & Makers series, which introduces viewers to fascinating people and interesting places in the greater Philadelphia region. View it online here.
  • Theatrical Performance: 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” features actor Nathan Alford-Tate and tells the story of teenaged Forten joining a privateer ship to serve during the Revolutionary War. “Meet Elder James Forten” features actor Steve Crum and follows a 72-year-old Forten as he reflects on the progress and challenges of his lifetime. Performance takes place on select weekends in the Alan B. Miller Theater. 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.
  • For Kids and Families: Families can enjoy the special exhibition with a printed family guide full of activities. Hands-on activities for visitors to the exhibition 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 are now available. Teacher resource guides are available here.
  • Virtual Tour: A virtual version of the exhibition is available to digital explorers from around the world through a free 360-degree virtual tour, which will remain permanently available.
  • Audio Tour: An audio tour (with transcriptions) is available for $5 per handheld device ($3 for Museum Members).
  • Guided Tours: Hour-long 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 are available. To book, contact [email protected] or 267.579.3623.
  • Walking Tours: 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.
  • Group Visits: Group tickets are available at a discounted price. To book, contact [email protected] or 267.579.3623.
  • Exhibition Catalog: A catalog of the exhibit is available in the Museum’s shop onsite and online

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 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). 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.
  • The only surviving photograph of James Forten’s wife Charlotte Vandine Forten taken in Philadelphia in the 1860s 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 from the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (1795-1837), 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, donated to the Museum by Atwood “Kip” Forten Jacobs, James Forten’s great-great-great-great-grandson, and his daughter.

Black Founders is open daily from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. The 5,000 square-foot exhibition is 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 Independence Blue Cross, Morris W. Offit, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Agency, The Richard C. von Hess Foundation, American Heritage Credit Union, Claudia and Richard Balderston, Ballard Spahr LLC, Aliya Browne and Reginald M. Browne, Electro Soft Inc., The Haverford Trust Company, Neubauer Family Foundation, PECO, Philip Syng Reese, Visit Philadelphia, and WSFS Bank.

About James Forten
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 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.

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.