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American Revolution Museum puts Philly abolitionist and entrepreneur James Forten at the center of new exhibit

A major 2023 exhibition will explore the impact Forten, his wife, and their descendants made on the nation.

Nathan Alford-Tate reads his lines as he portrays Revolutionary War figure James Forten during a rehearsal at the Museum of the American Revolution on Oct. 27. The museum is mounting an exhibit, a theatrical presentation and other programming efforts on Forten, who was a prominent, free Black businessman in Philadelphia.
Nathan Alford-Tate reads his lines as he portrays Revolutionary War figure James Forten during a rehearsal at the Museum of the American Revolution on Oct. 27. The museum is mounting an exhibit, a theatrical presentation and other programming efforts on Forten, who was a prominent, free Black businessman in Philadelphia.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

James Forten is not the most well-known of Revolutionary War-era patriots, but his story is an essential American story.

Forten was a Black man born free in Philadelphia in 1766 who became rich running one of the city’s great sailmaking businesses. He deployed sailing equipment of his own devising and employed Black and white workers equally.

The Forten sailmaking operation came to dominate what is now Penn’s Landing, and the owner put his considerable wealth into purchasing the liberty of enslaved Black men, women, and children. He financed William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and his Lombard Street home became an Underground Railroad Station and a school for Black boys and girls.

With his older friends Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, Forten worked to build nascent Black institutions, such as the Free African Society, arguably the nation’s first human-rights organization.

Yet despite all of this, Forten remains underappreciated in the popular imagination, if not unknown.

The Museum of the American Revolution is now making a major effort with a number of projects to get the word out — most significantly with a 2023 exhibition exploring the life and influence of James Forten and the sprawling Forten family, which continued on past James and his wife, Charlotte Vandine Forten. Charlotte Forten and daughters Margaretta, Harriet, and Sarah helped to found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the first integrated women’s abolitionist organization.

Harriet and Sarah Forten married brothers Joseph and Robert Purvis, extremely important abolitionists who worked with William Lloyd Garrison and James Forten to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society.

The moral sentiments articulated by James and Charlotte Forten can be seen in the abolitionist and suffragist movements that proved the Forten family focus down through the 19th century — from the antebellum period, through Reconstruction, and into the Jim Crow era.

Their granddaughter, Charlotte Louise Bridges Forten Grimké, a poet and educator, embodied all of that moral authority and was active as a writer and activist until the onset of World War I. Her best-known work remains her diary, The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten, still in print.

The Fortens, served as commenters and activists through multiple generations for virtually the entire history of the nation. The family’s story is so striking that officials at the Museum of the American Revolution are seeking Forten descendants to help inform the 2023 exhibit.

“We’re working on a bunch of [Forten] projects, but the end goal is in February 2023, we’re going to be opening a special exhibit about the Fortens of Philadelphia focusing on James Forten and his life story and his major contributions to Philadelphia and its history,” said Matthew Skic, the museum’s curator of exhibitions.

In addition to Forten, Skic said the exhibit will focus on Forten’s “children and grandchildren carrying on legacies that he established in fighting against slavery, advocating for education for African American men and women, and the rights of citizenship as well.”

Right now, Skic said, “we’re working on one project that’s already completed, but another project that will be debuting in November.”

The completed project consists of a painting by Don Troiani, part of the current museum exhibition, “Liberty: Don Troiani’s Paintings of the Revolutionary War” (on view until Sept. 5, 2022).

The painting depicts 15-year-old Forten watching the 1st Rhode Island regiment of Washington’s Continental Army march through Philadelphia on the way to Yorktown.

Actor Algernon Ward served as a model for Troiani, portraying a member of the mostly Black regiment as members march past Forten.

Ward considers the incident emotionally significant.

“He saw them ‘as brave men as ever [who] fought for their country,’ ” said Ward, referring to Forten’s view of the Black Rhode Island troops. “And it struck him [as powerful] seeing himself or people like him fighting for the patriots’ cause. It inspired him to later become an abolitionist against slavery from Pennsylvania.”

Skic said that Forten himself recalled the incident in an 1831 letter to his friend and fellow abolitionist Garrison.

“I well remember,” Forten wrote to Garrison, “that when the New England Regiments passed through this city on their way to attack the English Army under the command of Lord Cornwallis, there was several Companies of Coloured People, as brave Men as ever fought.”

“He’s reflecting upon the roughly 50 years that had passed since he had seen that Rhode Island army regiment march through the city, and he’s writing at a time when African Americans are still denied citizenship, their voting rights have been taken away; he’s writing about how he’s against the movement to send African Americans to Africa to colonize there and separate them from the white American population,” Skic said. “He’s standing in front of the facade of Independence Hall right on Chestnut Street, and the title of the painting is Brave Men As Ever Fought, based on his words.”

The museum’s second project, which debuts on Nov. 11, is a theatrical production on the life of Forten, which eventually will be mounted daily at the museum, although at the onset its presentation will be on weekends, according to a museum spokeswoman.

The sweep of the Forten story as it moves from colonial Philadelphia to the abolitionist movement, and on to the 20th century is what grabbed playwright Marissa Kennedy, who created the Forten theater piece for the museum.

“This project as a whole shows the deep contributions of Black Americans, African Americans to the United States and what we are today, right?” Kennedy said. “You know, there’s this phrase that ‘you reach back as you climb,’ or something close to that — bringing other people with you as you advance. That was a common phrase, a common lesson that my family taught me, and you can see that in the Fortens.”

For Kennedy, the Forten production ”highlights the resiliency of African Americans, and also something else,” she said. “I think what the story shows us, especially through the eyes of Forten, is how much we can accomplish as a nation if all of us work together across cultural divides.”

Nathan Alford-Tate, the actor who portrays younger James Forten, said Forten is about to travel to England where he will learn techniques that will allow him to innovate as a sailmaker. “I’m gonna be covering a moment where basically what’s happening is, I’m meeting my brother-in-law William Dunbar and we’re about to board the [the ship] heading to England to learn more sailmaking techniques,” said Alford-Tate.

His Forten is young, creative, energetic, thoughtful. A man unafraid of taking risks, and a man with a strong moral compass that he would pass on to his descendants as they continued his efforts in education, abolitionism, and civil rights.

Said Skic of the museum: “He was heavily involved in multiple organizations and not only was he involved, but his children, his grandchildren were involved in some of these same organizations and movements. And they really were setting the stage for later activists like Octavius Catto and other great Philadelphians, and their network not only just in Philadelphia, but nationally. ... They were such an important family.”