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The purpose of this unit is for students to explore how and why communities change. By comparing the city of Philadelphia at the time of James Forten’s youth with the city during his adulthood, students can analyze the causes and effects of shifts within communities and how drastically they could change in one’s lifetime. Students will also consider how individuals can make positive changes within their communities.

Aims & Objectives

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

  • Analyze what changed in Philadelphia during James Forten’s lifetime and what remained the same.
  • Consider what it was like to live in Philadelphia in the early to middle 1800s.
  • Understand why people choose to leave their homes and relocate.
  • Reflect on ways individuals can affect change in their own communities today.


  • Big Idea 6: Elder James Forten’s World: Life in Philadelphia, 1820-1842
  • Map: African American Philadelphia, 1830-1840
  • Worksheet: Changing Communities
  • Worksheet: Postcards from Philadelphia
  • Worksheet: Philadelphia’s Changing Population, 1800-1830
  • Worksheet: Why I Left
  • Painting: Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market by John Lewis Krimmel, 1811 (Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward B. Leisenring, Jr., 2001, 2001-196-1)
  • Engraving: Burning Pennsylvania Hall by John Sartain, 1838 (Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford College)


Engagement, Option 1 (5-10 minutes)

Love Where You Live
Engage students in a conversation around the following questions:

  • Why do you think some people move to big cities instead of rural communities and vice versa?
  • If you could live in a city or rural community, where would you live and why?
  • Finally, if you could live anywhere where would it be and why?

Engagement, Option 2 (10-15 minutes)

Pepper Pot Soup
Teacher preparation: Display or project: Pepper-Pot: A Scene in the Philadelphia Market by John Lewis Krimmel

Engage students in a conversation around the following questions:

  • Where is this scene taking place?
  • What groups of people do you see?
  • What is happening in this scene?
  • When do you think this scene took place?
  • Are there scenes like this in your community today?

Explain to students that pepper pot soup was a dish commonly found in Philadelphia in the 1800s. Engage students in a conversation around the following questions:

  • Are any specialty dishes found in your community?
  • What can cuisine reveal about a community?
  • How can food bring people together?

Development, Option 1 (40-45 minutes)

Close-Knit Communities
Teacher preparation: Prepare to project or display the map African American Philadelphia, 1830-1840.

Start by asking students the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be part of a community?
  • What does being a good community member look like?
  • What places are important to members of the same community?

Then, display the map and engage students in a conversation around the following questions:

  • Where were the African American churches located in Philadelphia?
  • Why do you think they were located so close to each other?
  • How do you think the churches helped to build the community?
  • What factors influence why people choose to build buildings and start businesses where they do?

Assign students individually or in a group to propose a place for a store or place of worship within their community. Students will present to the rest of the class focusing on why they chose that specific location.

Development, Option 2 (40-45 minutes)

Changing Communities
Teacher Preparation: Review Big Idea 1: Young James Forten’s World: Life in Revolutionary Philadelphia and Big Idea 6: Elder James Forten’s World: Life in Philadelphia, 1820-1842 and print out copies for each student or ensure they have devices with internet connection to read them. Prepare copies of the Changing Communities worksheet.

After students have read Big Idea 1 and Big Idea 6, have students complete the worksheet: Changing Communities.

Once students have completed the worksheet, have a discussion with them around the following questions:

  • What were some aspects of life in Philadelphia that changed between the two periods?
  • Why did these changes take place?
  • What changed for people of African descent? Why do you think these changes happened?
  • If you were James Forten, how might these changes affect you and your work to end slavery?

EXTEND: Prepare copies of the Postcards from Philadelphia worksheet. Have students write a postcard from Philadelphia in 1776 and Philadelphia in 1830 as if they were an abolitionist from the time period. Have them consider what issues they were dealing with in their fight to end slavery and their hopes for the cause.

Culmination/Group Activity

My Evolving Neighborhood

Break students up into three groups as follows:

  • 1776 Group
  • 1830 Group
  • Today Group

Have them research the following information on your community during the time they were assigned.

  • How diverse was (is) your community?
  • What was (is) the economy based on?
  • Find at least 2 community leaders in your community. These might include politicians, religious figures, educators, businesspeople, or others. What did they do, or are they doing, to help your community?
  • What problems did (does) your community face?

Have students present their findings to the class in the form of a visual presentation (PowerPoint, Prezi, Poster). Afterwards, discuss with students any similarities or differences in the three time periods. Finally, have students predict what their community might look like in 100 years.

Extensions & Adaptations

Teacher Preparation: Review Big Idea 6: Elder James Forten’s World: Life in Philadelphia, 1820-1842 and print out copies for each student or ensure they have devices with internet connection to read it. Prepare copies of the Why I Left worksheet. Gather some Post-it notes.

After students have read Big Idea 6, hand out the worksheet Why I Left and assign students time to complete it at home and to interview family members. The next day, write the words Push and Pull on the board in front of the class or somewhere in your classroom. Give students Post-it notes and have them put their families push/pull factors on them and place them underneath the words, push and pull.

Once students have finished, have them come up to the board to see their classmates’ Post-its. Discuss with students what similarities they found with their classmates’ push/pull factors. Finally, ask them if there is any reason they would consider moving to another country, town, or city?

Assign students to create a poster or commercial as if they were the tourist board for your town. What sights, attractions, dining options, and cultural activities can draw tourists to your town? How would this be different or similar if you were creating this in 1776 and/or 1830?

Teacher preparation: Display or project the image of Burning Pennsylvania Hall.

Display or project the engraving of Burning Pennsylvania Hall. Ask students what is going on in the image. Point out that the firefighters are not attempting to put out the fire at Pennsylvania Hall. Ask students why that might have happened.

Assign students to read Big Idea 6. Afterwards, review with students that Philadelphia experienced five race riots in the years between 1828 and 1849 that destroyed Black homes and businesses.

Engage students in conversation around the following questions:

  • Why do we still experience racial unrest today?
  • In what forms does this unrest occur?
  • How might these forms of racial unrest be experienced and perceived by various members of the communities in which they occur?

Then, share the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. with students: “And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?” Engage students in conversation around the following questions:

  • How might James Forten have considered this quote in 1834 after his son was attacked and a riot followed days later?
  • How might this quote be understood by people today?

Explain to students that labor unions are organizations of workers who join together to advance their common interests. A union is usually made up of workers from a particular profession, industry, or company. Discuss with students why workers join labor unions. What are some things that workers might advocate for as part of a union? What would be some possible pros and cons of joining a labor union?

Like the Fortens, other families contributed to Philadelphia’s Black community. This included the:

  • Cassey Family
  • Bustill Family
  • Douglass Family
  • Purvis Family

Have students research the lives and contributions of one of these families and create a Venn Diagram comparing the family with the Forten Family. What causes were they involved in? How did they try to enact change?

Have students write a newspaper article from March 1842 as if they were a journalist covering James Forten’s funeral. Have students consider what it meant to have people of different races attend.

Have students research what caused Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to part ways. Ask students to consider how Jones and Allen are in some ways similar to a later preacher of African descent, Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Have students create an advertisement for the following attractions that were in Philadelphia in the early 1800s.

  • Rickett’s Circus
  • Chestnut Street Theater
  • Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum
  • Walnut Street Theater

What value do you think they may have added to the communities they were a part of? Can you still go to these attractions today? Are there similar attractions in your city?

Teacher preparation: Prepare copies of Philadelphia’s Changing Population worksheet.

Assign students to complete the worksheet individually or in groups after reading Big Idea 6.

Learn More

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Access modular activities and ready-made worksheets to help your students dig deeper into the lives and legacies of free Black Philadelphia, Revolutionary War privateer, and successfull businessman James Forten and his descendants.
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Explore these short framing essays to discover the lives and legacies of free Black Philadelphian, Revolutionary War privateer, successful businesman, and stalwart abolitionist James Forten and his family.
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This glossary provides definitions that may be useful as you explore the Black Founders: The Fortens of Philadelphia teacher resources, big ideas, and primary sources.
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