HomeMoorestown NewsA family committed to change

A family committed to change

Moorestown resident curates exhibit on Black Philadelphian James Forten and family

Courtesy of the Collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
“Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia” at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia tells the story of James Forten, a Black Philadelphian, Revolutionary War veteran and entrepreneur whose family played integral roles in the Revolutionary War, abolition and women’s suffrage.

A Moorestown resident has curated the Museum of the American Revolution’s special exhibit, “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia,” the first major museum exhibition to tell the story of free Black Philadelphian James Forten and his family, from the Revolutionary War era through the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“James Forten was the only member of these three generations that this exhibit talks about that was actually present for the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence,” explained Matthew Skic, curator of the Philadelphia museum. “His wife was born just after the war, but even though they had never witnessed this founding moment, they were committed to its ideals.

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“They heard stories from their father and people of his generation,” Skic added, “and instead of disregarding it or not being interested in doing these efforts to encourage the nation to better commit to its founding ideals, they are trying to be change makers.”

Skic described the family’s multiple generations as inspiring.

“It shows this dynamism of one family,” Skic noted. ‘They weren’t alone in doing this, but this is a really wonderful way of understanding how one family was advocating for change in the nation, and there’s still a lot of unresolved issues that this nation is facing that the Fortens were concerned about and hoped to resolve, but we’re still facing today.

“I think it can be inspirational going forward, especially as we approach the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.”

Courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution
The exhibit features more than 100 historical artifacts, works of art, textiles and documents from nearly 40 lenders and the museum’s own collection.

“Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia” runs through Sunday, Nov. 26. The exhibit brings together more than 100 historical artifacts, works of art, textiles and documents from nearly 40 lenders and the museum’s own collection. Rare historical objects on loan from descendants of the Forten family are on view for the first time, including a family Bible that was recently donated to the museum.

The exhibit also features videos, audio experiences and tactile interactives, including a partial recreation of Forten’s sail-making workshop that visitors can step inside to discover replica tools and a workbench like those he used.

“Black Founders” explores the Forten family’s roles in the Revolutionary War, business in Philadelphia, and the abolitionist movement from 1776 to 1876, including helping to start both the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. During those 100 years, the family also took an active role in defending voting rights and civil liberties for African Americans.

The exhibit focuses on three generations of the Forten family, from James and Charlotte Vandine Forten to their children and grandchildren, who supported the Union cause during the Civil War.

Christine Harkinson/The Sun
“One of the payoffs that I really am excited about is when an exhibit like this opens. I love observing visitors and (seeing) how they interact with things,” said museum curator and Moorestown resident Matthew Skic.

“The Forten family was committed to change in various ways,” said Skic. “Not only were they thinking about civil rights and abolition, but they were also involved in the early days of women’s suffrage, getting the right to vote for women nationally … They were involved in the temperance movement …

“‘Change’ is the word that I think is worth it,” he added of the exhibit.

Newly installed in August, the exhibit allows visitors to view a scale model of the Royal Louis, the privateer ship on which Forten served in 1781, as well as a touchable cannon from the 1700s. At the listening station, visitors can hear the music of Francis Johnson, Forten’s friend and the first African American composer to publish his compositions.

The music is performed by pianist Steven Page, multi-instrumentalist B.E. Farrow, vocalist Candace Nicole Potts of the Jeremy Winston Chorale and the Chestnut Brass Company and includes “The Grave of a Slave,” a poem written by Forten’s daughter Sarah that Johnson set to music.

Skic noted how the museum has shared Forten’s story as a core exhibit since it opened in 2017, but staff decided to pull the thread and expand Forten’s family history into a 5,000- square-foot exhibit.

“My favorite thing is working with the historical artifacts and documents, and the relationship building that comes out of that, because we do depend on a lot of loans from private collections or institutions, and tracking those down and deciding what to include is my favorite thing,” Skic observed.

“One of the payoffs that I really am excited about is when an exhibit like this opens, I love observing visitors and (seeing) how they interact with things.”

Key artifacts on display at the exhibit include a Philadelphia-made table (1790-1805) once owned by Forten, on loan to the museum from a step-descendant of the Forten family and his wife; two needlework samplers (1817 and 1822) stitched by Forten’s daughters, Margaretta and Mary Forten, that have been in the possession of seven Forten generations; a historic Bible – circa 1838 – owned by the Forten family and donated to the museum by Atwood “Kip” Forten Jacobs, Forten’s great-great-great-great grandson, and his daughter; and Forten’s earliest surviving letter, written in January of 1800 and on loan from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Additional resources in “Black Founders” include a documentary film, a theatrical performance, virtual and audio tours, a guided tour and a walking tour. For more information on the exhibit, visit https://www.amrevmuseum.org.


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