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The purpose of this unit is for students to explore the legacy of James Forten and his family, from his death to today. By understanding the contributions of the Forten family, students will consider how they strived to honor his memory by fighting for the ideals that he believed in. Using James Forten as an example, students will analyze how and why certain historical figures are remembered. Students will also consider how they can remember and honor their own ancestors today.

Aims & Objectives

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

  • Analyze the contributions made by the Forten family to preserve the ideals of the American Revolution.
  • Consider why and how historical figures are remembered, and some are forgotten.
  • Reflect on ways they can remember and honor their own ancestors today.

Materials

  • Big Idea 7: Continuing the Forten Family Legacy
  • Image: James Forten’s Historical Marker
  • Image: Bust of George Washington by William Rush, 1817 (Museum of the American Revolution)
  • Image: Portrait of James Forten by an unidentified artist, 1820s-1830s (Collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania)
  • Image: Am I Not A Woman or Sister
  • Handout: Words of the Forten Family
  • Object Card: Family Heirlooms
  • Worksheet: Continuing the Legacy
  • Image: We Will Prove Ourselves Men by David Bustill Bowser, 1863 (Courtesy of Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center)

Procedures

Engagement, Option 1 (10-15 minutes)

Forgotten Figures
Teacher preparation: Prepare to display both the image of James Forten and the image of George Washington.

Display or project the image: Bust of George Washington. Ask students if they know who the bust is of. Do they think most people would recognize who this bust portrays? Then display or project the image of James Forten. Ask the same questions. (If students do not know who James Forten is, you can briefly explain his story) Then engage students in a conversation around the following questions:

  • Why do you think most people would recognize George Washington and not recognize James Forten?
  • What are some factors that influence why certain historic figures are remembered in history?
  • Why do you think some historical figures, like James Forten, are not as well-known?
  • What do you think the criteria should be for deciding what historical stories are important to tell? Why? How can we ensure that important but less well-known stories aren’t ignored or forgotten?

Engagement, Option 2 (10-15 minutes)

Family Heirlooms
Teacher preparation: Prepare to display or project the object card Family Heirlooms.

Begin by engaging students in conversation around the following questions:

  • What is the difference between a historical object and a historical document?
  • How might objects and documents help historians tell stories about the past?
  • What type of objects would be useful for historians?

Then display or project the object card: Family Heirlooms. Tell students that both of these objects belonged to women in the Forten family. Give students a few minutes to observe the objects.

Engage students in conversation around the following question:

  • For each of the objects, what might they reveal to us about the Forten family? (Sampler — Forten’s daughters were educated, something the Forten family greatly valued. Calling Card Plate — Forten’s granddaughter had an active social life.)

EXTEND: Assign students to bring in an object from home that says something about themselves or their family. Have the students present it to the class and let their classmates guess what the object reveals.

EXTEND: Have students create their own calling cards.

Development, Option 1 (40-45 minutes)

Historic Markers at Home
Teacher preparation: Review Big Idea 7: Continuing the Forten Family Legacy. Ensure students have access to computers, tablets, or other devices with working internet connections to read Big Idea 7 or print out enough copies for each student. Prepare to display or project an image of James Forten’s historical marker found on Lombard Street in Philadelphia.

Begin by engaging students in conversation around the following questions:

  • Do you know what a historical marker is? (If yes, continue to the next questions. If no, display the image of James Forten’s historical marker).
  • Where have you seen one? Do you remember who or what event was celebrated?
  • How did the historical marker help you understand the person or event?

Then display the image of James Forten’s historical marker and read the text aloud: Wealthy sailmaker who employed multi-racial craftsmen, Forten was a leader of the African-American community in Philadelphia and a champion of reform causes. The American Antislavery Society was organized in his house here in 1833.

After students have had time to read Big Idea 7, break them up into small groups and ask them to rewrite the marker asking:

  • After learning about James Forten’s story, what would you change or add on the text of the historical marker?
  • Other than a historical marker, what are some other ways we can remember James Forten?
  • What lessons can we learn from his life and legacy?

Have students present their revised markers and ideas of other ways to remember James Forten to the class.

EXTEND: Have students individually or in groups research a person from your community that they feel is deserving of a historical marker. What should the maker say? Where should it be located? Have them write a letter to a local newspaper, mayor of your town, or local historical commission proposing the marker and why it should be created.

Development, Option 2 (45-50 minutes)

Continuing the Legacy
Teacher preparation: Review Big Idea 7: Continuing the Forten Family Legacy. Ensure students have access to computers, tablets, or other devices with working internet connections to read Big Idea 7 or print out enough copies for each student. Prepare copies of the handout Words of the Forten Family and worksheet Continuing the Legacy.

After students have read Big Idea 7 for homework or in class, distribute the handout and the worksheet for students to complete in small groups. After students have completed the worksheet, have a class discussion around the following questions:

  • What does the word “ideal” mean?
  • What ideals were the Forten family concerned with?
  • In what ways did James Forten’s family members advance his legacy?
  • How did the family’s words mirror their actions?
  • What are some ways that you can continue advancing the Forten family’s legacy today?

Culmination (Research Project and one day in class for the celebration)

My Amazing Ancestors Celebration
Teacher preparation: Prepare a class period to celebrate the students’ ancestors. Optional: Bring a cake or have students bring a favorite food of their celebrated person.

Assign students to find one person in their family or community (living or dead) that they want to know more about. Have them conduct an interview with the person or someone who knew/knows them well. Students should focus on their person’s accomplishments, challenges, and issues that they care/cared about. From the interviews, have students prepare to share their favorite story about the person with the class. At the end of the class celebration, engage students in conversation around the following questions:

  • What was the most surprising thing you discovered about your person?
  • Did learning more about your ancestor or community member help you better understand your family’s history? Why?
  • How can you help your family or community remember this person today?
  • What’s an important lesson we can learn from this person’s experiences?

Extensions & Adaptations

WHAT’S IN A NAME?
James Forten named his second son, Robert Bridges Forten, after the man who mentored him in the sail making business, Robert Bridges. Engage students in a conversation around the following questions:

  • Is there someone who made a difference in your life?
  • How can you honor the people that make a difference in your life?
  • Are you named after someone? Why?

WE WILL PROVE OURSELVES MEN
Teacher preparation: Prepare to project or display the Flag of the 127th Regiment USCT (United States Colored Troops). Explain to students that Philadelphia artist David Bustill Bowser painted this silk flag for the 127th Regiment of United States Colored Troops. It is one of a probable total of 11 flags that Bowser painted for the 11 USCT regiments that were raised in Philadelphia and trained at Camp William Penn. Of those 11 flags, this is the only one that survives.

Have a conversation with students around the following questions:

  • What images do you see on the flag?
  • What do you think the woman represents?
  • Based on your observations of the flag, what do you think it symbolized?
  • What might the phrase “We Will Prove Ourselves Men” have meant during the Civil War? And why might the people carrying the flag have felt this message was important?
  • How do you think the flag was viewed by other groups of people during the Civil War?
  • Do you think the phrase “We Will Prove Ourselves Men” still has meaning today? For whom, and why?

EXHIBIT EXPLORATION
The Museum of the American Revolution’s exhibit, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia tells the story of James Forten and his family. Ask students: If you could pick a little-known character in history to design an exhibit on, who would it be and why? What stories from their life would you like to tell in the exhibit? What objects, documents and photographs would you use in the exhibit? Have students design an exhibit outline with the different themes of the exhibit.

FAMOUS FAMILIES
Have students pick their favorite actor, musician, or sports star. Have them research that person’s family and present one or two interesting facts about the family to the class, like the television show, Who Do You Think You Are? Students can also research how or if the family is helping to advance the legacy of their person or following in their footsteps.

AM I NOT A WOMEN AND A SISTER
Teacher preparation: Prepare to display or project the image Am I Not a Woman and a Sister.

Explain to students that the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, founded in part by James Forten’s wife and his daughters, and other women’s abolitionist groups used this image of an enslaved woman in chains with the words, “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” as their official seal.

Engage students in a conversation around the following questions:

  • What do you see in the image?
  • What message is this seal trying to convey?
  • How do you know this based on your observation of the image?
  • How do you think this image was received/viewed/understood by the people who saw it, created it, or were represented in it?
  • How can images be powerful tools for those fighting for a cause?

Assign students to pick a cause that they and their family are passionate about and to create a seal for a new organization dedicated to furthering that cause. Have them choose a name for the organization and explain the meaning of the imagery on their seal.

YOUR LEGACY
Hand out one Post-it notes to each student. Have students write down what they want their legacy to be or how they want to be remembered, using one or two sentences. Have the students place the Post-it notes around the room. Afterwards, have students walk around the room and read the other Postits. Then, ask the students if there are any common themes? What are some ways to work towards leaving this legacy?

Learn More

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Black Founders Teacher Resources

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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Black Founders Big Ideas

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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Black Founders Glossary

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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