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This unit explores the early life of James Forten by describing what life was like in Philadelphia during the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Through understanding the role of Philadelphia during Forten’s youth, students can consider how one’s early experiences can shape their future. This unit also explores the issue of slavery in relation to the preamble of the Declaration of Independence’s promise that “all men are created equal.”

Aims & Objectives

The modular activities and extensions in this unit provide opportunities for students to:

  • Explore what life was like in Philadelphia before the Revolutionary War.
  • Consider how slavery impacted various communities in Philadelphia before the Revolutionary War and how slavery stood in contrast with the promises of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Practice historical empathy and critical thinking by relating to the experiences of young James Forten.

Materials

  • Big Idea 1: Young James Forten’s World: Life in Revolutionary Philadelphia
  • Map: A plan of the city of Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania, from an actual survey, Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
  • Worksheet: The Meaning of Slavery

Procedure

Engagement, Option 1 (5-10 minutes)

My Hometown
Teacher preparation: Bring a pack of Post-it notes to class.

Hand out a Post-it note to each student. Ask students to write down a place in their home community that they like to visit. Have students place their Post-it note in the front of the classroom. Read the Post-it notes out loud. Then ask students:

  • How do these places contribute to the community?
  • Is your community special or unique in any way?

Engagement, Option 2 (15-20 minutes)

The Declaration of Independence and James Forten
Teacher preparation: Review Big Idea 1: Young James Forten’s World: Life in Revolutionary Philadelphia and find online the text of the Declaration of Independence.

Have students read Big Idea 1 either in class or as a homework assignment. Afterwards, read the preamble of the Declaration of Independence out loud to the class. Engage students in conversation around the following questions:

  • How might James Forten have felt about the preamble as a 9-year-old free person of African descent?
  • What concerns might he have had about the document?
  • What opportunities might he have considered?
  • Why do you think James Forten remembered this moment years later in his life?

EXTEND: Have students create a 1-2 page diary entry as if they were James Forten describing this event and his reactions to it.

Development, Option 1 (35-40 minutes)

James Forten's Philadelphia
Teacher Preparation: Ensure students have access to computers, tablets, or other devices with working internet connections to read Big Idea 1: Young James Forten’s World: Life in Revolutionary Philadelphia or print out enough copies for each student. Prepare to display the map: A plan of the city of Philadelphia, the capital of Pennsylvania, from an actual survey.

After students have read Big Idea 1, display the map. Engage students in a conversation around the following questions:

  • What places in Philadelphia were important to the early life of James Forten?
  • How was James Forten affected by living in Philadelphia?
  • How would his young life have been different if he lived in another place?
  • How is Philadelphia a character in the early life of James Forten? In other words, how did the city play a role in his daily life?

Have students consider how their lives differ from each other based on where they live and create an essay, tri-fold poster, or theatrical performance addressing all or one of the following questions:

  • To what extent has my life been affected by where I live?
  • How might where I live today affect my future?
  • How is my town a part of my life?
  • How would my town be different if I was born elsewhere?

Development, Option 2 (35-45 minutes)

The Meaning of Slavery
Teacher preparation: Prepare copies of The Meaning of Slavery worksheet. Ensure students have access to computers, tablets, or other devices with working internet connections to read Big Idea 1: Young James Forten’s World: Life in Revolutionary Philadelphia or print out enough copies for each student.

Distribute the worksheet: The Meaning of Slavery. After students have had time to complete the worksheet, engage them in conversation around the following questions:

  • How might different people living in Philadelphia at the time have viewed slavery? What do you think they thought the word meant?

Break students into 4 groups assigning them one of the following people or groups. Ask students to consider how the following individuals might have viewed each of these quotes? Give them time to reread the quotes based on their individual.

  • James Forten (a free young boy of African descent)
  • A slave owner
  • A person who is opposed to British policies (someone who strongly wanted their rights as British subjects).
  • A Quaker who is against slavery (Quakers at the time were beginning to question the morality of slavery).

Have the students present their findings to the rest of the class. Conclude by asking how the word slave had different meanings to groups of people. Does the word have different meanings today?

Culmination - Timeline Project

James Forten and You Timeline
Teacher preparation: Review Big Idea 1: Young James Forten’s World: Life in Revolutionary Philadelphia. Ensure students have access to computers, tablets, or other devices with working internet connections to read Big Idea 1 or print out enough copies for each student.

Have students create a timeline of important events leading up to the Revolutionary War from 1765 to 1775 and identify how old James Forten was at each event. Then underneath the event, write how these events might have affected him.

Then, have students create a timeline of the important events that happened during their life. Again, underneath the events, have the students write how the events affected them. Have students present their timeline to the class or display them in your classroom.

Extensions & Adaptations

HOMETOWN DIVERSITY – Research Project
Instruct students to read Big Idea 1: Young James Forten’s World: Life in Revolutionary Philadelphia to better understand the diversity of the city James Forten knew as a child.

Next, ask students to research recent census data or other records to learn about their city’s diversity today. Then, discuss what having a diverse populace means for a city (e.g., languages spoken and heard, foods eaten, religions practiced, skills brought and shared). What are the opportunities and challenges for a diverse city today?

MY NEIGHBORHOOD – Creative Map Project
Optional teacher preparation: Gather examples of old, new, and/or conceptual artistic maps.

Ask students to draw (or assemble from photographs or found images) a “map” of their neighborhood, city, or route to school, marking locations that are important to them. This could be a straightforward map or more abstract visual representation. Then, ask them to reflect on the following questions: How have these places and the people in or near them influenced you? How have you affected these places and people? Is there a specific place that you like to gather with friends or family? (Additional Option: Students’ maps could be combined as a class to create a large collective map display.)

MY COMMUNITY – Art/Media Project
Ask students to use any medium that interests or inspires them (drawing/painting, photography, collage/mixed media, digital media, creative writing, or a combination) to design and produce a creative product that responds to the questions:

  • How is your community important to you?
  • If you could change something in your community, what would it be and why?

PHILADELPHIA: THEN & NOW – Research Project
Ask students to use Google Maps or other tools to research one or more modern landscapes of spaces that were significant to James Forten’s early life in Philadelphia. Ask them to answer in some form: How are these spaces today different from or similar to the city James Forten knew? How and why have they changed?

PHILADELPHIA QUAKERS AND EARLY ABOLITIONISTS
Have students research the role of Philadelphia Quakers in regard to the abolition of slavery in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Assign students to write a newspaper article as if they were living in 1775, about the meeting of the first antislavery society in America (the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage) at the Rising Sun Tavern in Philadelphia.

SLAVERY IN THE NORTH
Ask students why they think most history books have associated the institution of slavery primarily with the plantation economy of the southern colonies. Then have students research how slavery was similar and different in the Northern colonies.

EDUCATION
Have students research how various groups of people were educated in Philadelphia before the Revolutionary War. How were schools and education different from schools today? Have students create a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences between education today and before the Revolutionary War.

YOUR HOME
Have students research what was happening in their city/town in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Assign them to create a newspaper account commemorating the role of their community.

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