New museum exhibition focuses on Black founders

A new exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution shines a spotlight on a part of Philly history that’s previously been under-covered.

Titled Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, the exhibit at the Old City museum showcases a century in the life of a family of free Black Philadelphians who were deeply engaged in civic life from the days of the Revolutionary War.  

Open through Thanksgiving, it’s chock full of rare artifacts and heirlooms, provided by descendents of the Forten family and partnering institutions.

“It’s so gratifying to be able to see archival records, family records in this fashion, displayed with dignity,” Dolly Marshall, a New Jersey-based preservationist and Forten family descendent, told Billy Penn. She hopes the exhibit will be “a lighting rod,” especially for African Americans, to learn more about their family history.

“The information is there, it has not always been accessible,” Marshall said, speaking on the challenges of Black genealogical work.

James Forten, businessman, abolitionist, and patriarch of the family, had already been featured at the museum, in a gallery that delves into his time on a privateer — a private ship commissioned by the state for military use — during the American Revolution.

Widening the lens to look at his descendents sheds light on a number of marquee moments and institutions in U.S. history, from the American Anti-Slavery Society, to the Amistad case about Africans fleeing slavery, to the Civil War raising of Black troops and beyond.

The exhibit will include interactive experiences — you’ll be able to try on clothing made to match the attire of 18th-century sailors, check out a partial recreation of the sail-making workshop where James Forten built his fortune, and attend weekend theatrical performances.

“Black Founders” is dedicated to the memory of Denise Valentine, a historian, educator, storyteller, and one of the lead researchers on the exhibit.

“She was a wonderful woman who was deeply passionate about making sure that the stories of people of African descent not only were not forgotten, but valued,” said Adrienne Whaley, the museum’s director of education and community engagement. 

Valentine’s input contributed to the dazzling array of documents and rarities, like the original Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, a pew from Mother Bethel AME Church used between 1805-1841, and a table made in Philadelphia owned by James Forten that has stayed in the family. But that’s just the beginning.

Here are five things to look for when you check out the exhibit.

127th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops flag

Made by David Bustil Bowser, a Black Philadelphian artist and activist, this banner was one of the flags he made for the 11 regiments of Black soldiers raised in Philadelphia to fight for the Union cause at Camp William Penn. On loan from the Atlanta History Center, is the last extant flag of the Bowser-made bunch.

A captured Confederate battle flag on the adjoining wall serves as a fitting counterpart — it was seized by a member of the 43rd USCT Regiment, in which Robert Bridges Forten served.

The 127th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops flag is the last remaining of 11 similar banners from the Revolutionary War. (Jordan Levy/Billy Penn)

Francis Johnson music station

The Forten family was part of an growing network of Black Philadelphians, and many artifacts in the exhibit bring the work and lives of people outside of the family to the fore, including figures like William Still and Octavius Catto.

Print of Cinqué’s portrait

Legal scholars, history buffs, and art nerds often recall the tale of the Amistad, a Spanish ship that in 1839 was hijacked by the enslaved people being moved to a section of Cuba for sale. The ship’s eventual capture in waters off the coast of New York led to a series of famous court cases that ended in the freedom of the rebellious “cargo.”

One of the Africans at the forefront of the rebellion was Joseph Cinqué, whose visage has been remembered via an 1840 portrait by Nathaniel Jocelyn. Who commissioned the piece? That would be the Black abolitionist Robert Purvis, James Forten’s son-in-law, who also had prints made to sell in support of abolitionist organizations.

Forten family Bible

On display for the first time ever is a Forten family Bible that dates back to 1838. The book also doubled as a family record, listing the names of Fortens through the generations. The display shows it flipped to the first page of the record, showing how highly the family valued documentation of their heritage and legacy. 

The heirloom has been loaned to the museum by Atwood “Kip” Forten Jacobs, great-great-great-great-grandson of James.

Abolitionist literature from Sarah Forten

Sarah Forten, daughter of James, was an active participant in abolitionist causes — like the rest of her family. Her writings and the work of her compatriots, including an adorable radical abolitionist children’s book, are featured in a section of the exhibit.

The documents give insight into the ways Philly abolitionists inserted themselves into civic life through philanthropy and fundraising, the aboveground work that was paired with clandestine mutual aid via Philadelphians’ involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The Museum of the American Revolution at 101 S. 3rd St. is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $21-$24 for adults, with discounts for students, youth, teachers, and the military. Kids under 5 enter free.

From Billy Penn