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24 Feb 2023

Museum of the American Revolution highlights life of Black founding father and his family in exhibition

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February 24, 2023 Category: Local Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Watercolor of abolitionist James Forten (1766-1842) believed to have been painted during his lifetime. (Photo: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

On July 8, 1776, a free Black boy, age 9, stood in the crowd at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) and heard the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

 “All men are created equal…” would be reflected in the acts of James Forten (1766-1842) for the rest of his remarkable life. On February 11, 2023, an exhibition, “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia,” opened at the Museum of the American Revolution, 101 South Third Street in Old City.

 “Forten’s name is still not well known by the general public,” said Matthew Skic, curator of exhibitions at the museum, “…but Forten kickstarted an activism that would continue in his children and grandchildren.”

Robert Purvis, president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, circa 1845. Credit: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department

Forten, who lost his father Thomas, a sailmaker, at about age seven, must have known how to sew canvas when the Revolutionary War broke out. Thomas often took James to Robert Bridges’ sail loft, where he worked. 

“Philadelphia was a hub of the military industry,” Skic said. “Forten probably did some sewing for Robert Bridges, whose business made supplies for the American cause.”

At age 14, Forten seized an opportunity.

“He signed on to serve on the Royal Louis, a privateer ship based out of Philadelphia,” Skic said, explaining that a privateer is an armed ship, privately owned but licensed by the government to attack enemy vessels. “The Continental Navy was quite small, and privateer ships beefed up American forces at sea. Forten was a powder boy on the Royal Louis. He brought powder from the ship’s hold to the cannons.” 

The war was a coming-of-age experience for Forten, according to Skic. 

“It was his first time away from home and his family in Philadelphia,” Skic said. “Serving at sea came with great personal risk, like injury or death. As a young Black man, Forten also faced the possibility of being sold into slavery if he was captured.”

On Forten’s second voyage, the Royal Louis was captured by the British. Forten ended up on the “Jersey,” a vermin infested prison ship anchored in New York, and remained there for seven months. Upon his release as part of the prisoner exchange, Forten walked barefoot from New York to Trenton, where kind people gave him food and shoes, historian Julie Winch writes in her book, “A Gentleman of Color, The Life of James Forten.”

 Forten spent a year in England in London’s shipyards, where he learned the latest sail making techniques. A seasoned young man when returned to Philadelphia, he resumed employment at Bridges’ loft.

 “In the thirteen years he trained him, Robert Bridges taught James Forten to work with a wide variety of rigs, with just about any vessel, large or small, that required sails,” Winch writes.

Forten proved so capable that Bridges made him foreman of the sail loft,, responsible for running it.

Bridges showed the utmost confidence in Forten.

“Bridges was hoping that his sons wouldn’t be employed working with their hands, and [upon retiring] in 1798, he gave the business to Forten,” Skic said.

Charlotte Forten Grimke Credit: Salem State College

Forten, now well-established, married Charlotte Vandine (1785-1884) in 1805. They would go on to have nine children.

Forten was becoming a powerhouse in the Black community. 

“He was one of the lay leaders of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas,” Skic said. “He also helped to provide for Black widows and orphans.” 

Forten pushed temperance and racial equality in his sail-loft, putting it into practice with an integrated workforce, unusual at the time, Skic notes. 

“He had become one of the richest Black men in the nation,” Skic said.

Forten’s activism spread his name beyond Philadelphia. In 1813, he wrote “Letters from a Man of Colour” to respond to “A Late Bill Before the Senate of Pennsylvania” to bar all Black people from entering the state. Forten paid for publishing the letters in pamphlet form, probably relying on white abolitionist friends to distribute them.    

During the War of 1812 (1812-1815), when Philadelphia’s city leaders feared a British attack, they turned to Forten to seek help from the Black community. Philadelphia’s Committee of Defense thought that “…these people of color might be employed as fatigue parties or on the works.”  When the Committee of Defense set September 21, 1814, as the day for Blacks to donate their labor, some 2,500 Black men built earthworks along the Delaware River at Gray’s Ferry.

Forten probably raised eyebrows not just with his integrated workforce, but by also encouraging the activism of his wife and daughters. 

“He hired tutors to educate his children, including his daughters,” Skic said. 

Some Philadelphians were scandalized when Black and white women, including Lucretia Mott and Forten’s wife and daughters, formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in December of 1833. They had been shut out of a male abolitionist group.

Harriet Forten Purvis, circa 1874. Credit: Public Domain

Harriet Forten, one of Forten’s daughters, married Robert Purvis (1810-1898), who chaired the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee that helped fugitives from slavery. Purvis had a secret room built in the family home on Lombard Street to hide them. 

On at least one occasion, Purvis sat just inside the door of his house with a shotgun, fearing that a white mob would come storming in. Purvis also fought for the rights of free Black people.

The Fortens helped recruit Black troops to fight in the Civil War. Robert Bridges Forten, one of James Forten’s sons, served as a sergeant major of the 43rd regiment of United States Colored Troops. During the war, Charlotte L. Forten (1837-1914), also known as Charlotte Forten Grimke, James Forten’s granddaughter, taught freedmen in South Carolina and wrote about her experience for “The Atlantic” magazine. 

The exhibition includes more than 100 items loaned from Philadelphia museums and archives and other parts of the country, including items on loan from Forten’s descendants. Visitors can see the Minute Book of the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee, which documents the committee’s support of freedom seekers in 1839 and 1840. It is one of the few surviving documents detailing the work of the Underground Railroad. An entry on July 29, 1839, describes a fugitive “Woman from Vir. stout make dark complexion…” that the committee sent to New York at a cost of $3.17.

Actor Nathan Alford-Tate delivers a performance of Meet James Forten on the recreated sail loft in the Museum’s Black Founders exhibit. Photo courtesy: Museum of the American Revolution

Other documents show the Forten family’s connection with renowned abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Still, and Octavius Catto, Skic said. Objects such as a table from Forten’s home and samplers sewn by his daughters add vividness to the exhibition.

 “The exhibition is designed to engage children, too,” Skic said. “We’re building a partial recreation of a sail loft, which will include replicas of sailmaking tools and a replica of a sailmaker’s bench. We’ll also have recreations of sailors’ clothing from the period of the Revolutionary War for children to try on. We want this exhibit to appeal to the whole family.”

The exhibition runs from February 11, 2023, to November 26, 2023, and is included in the regular museum admission.

To learn about more events at the museum, please visit: 

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