In early February I was invited to join a friend as a guest for the opening celebration of a new exhibit at Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR). The exhibit, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, begins with James Forten, who as a nine-year-old free African American was believed to have stood in the crowd at the Pennsylvania Statehouse during the first reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776.
The concept that the American Revolution is more than a single moment in time speaks to the heart of MoAR’s core exhibitions. The Forten exhibit builds upon the American Revolution as an idea in a micro-historical way. While Forten heard the Declaration and fought alongside other colonists for independence, his family carried forward the principles of liberty, equality, and self-governance. Forten built his fortune as a sailmaker and became part of an elite group of wealthy African and Caribbean Americans in Philadelphia who used their influence to organize churches, schools, learned societies, and all manner of philanthropic support for their community.
The exhibit spans a century and features personal objects which tell the story of the Forten family, such as samplers, created by daughters Margaretta and Mary Forten, a book cover, which might have included poetry written by daughter Sarah who was first published at age 16, a family bible, and a mahogany gate-leg table. These items illustrate their impressive skills and knowledge and were thoughtfully handed down through the family’s branches, never leaving the provenance of Forten relations. The ideal that “All men are created equal” saw the Forten descendants become leaders in cross-racial relationships to further advancements in the abolition movement through the Civil War, as well as the women’s suffrage movement.
More than the exhibit itself, the opening night celebration was a revelation. Perhaps it was the gospel choir from the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas—the Forten family’s congregation, which continues to thrive today—singing on the grand staircase filling the over-crowded room with festive joy. Yet, I felt it deeper. I don’t know if I had been swayed by all the doom and gloom that has been reported incessantly across social and news media platforms– the library book bans, the change in AP history curriculum, the notion of introducing Rosa Parks in Florida schools without ever mentioning the color of her skin.
As a public historian, I am aware that several local historic sites and archives are committed to doing the work of expanding the stories they tell and facing the complexities of our nation’s messy history. In his opening remarks, James Dever, president of Bank of America Greater Philadelphia and chair of MoAR’s Corporate Partners and Advisory Council, kicked things off by apologizing to every Black person in the room. It was a powerful statement and a powerful moment. Dalila Wilson-Scott, the executive vice president, chief diversity officer, and president of the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation, shared with the crowd her organization’s financial commitment to social justice and equity initiatives. These organizations were two of the leading donors of the Forten exhibit.
By the time we heard from Danielle Allen, the director of the Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, my proverbial brain had exploded. Allen invoked her fellow Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed. Gordon-Reed won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2009 for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, which featured her work researching the oral histories surrounding the Hemings and Jefferson families—stories held close and passed down through the African American mothers through the generations, but never taken seriously. But now, Allen shared, scholarship is finally catching up to what we have always known, but easily denied. A family bible or an errant diary can now be combined with DNA, genetic genealogy, and a plethora of formerly inaccessible, digitized documents to reveal a much fuller and often more complicated story than we ever imagined. In other words, your great-aunt’s crazy stories can now be properly researched.
Many Philadelphians know the secret of the site where I stood listening to these speakers. MoAR was built on the land that was once home to the Independence National Historical Park’s Bicentennial-era Visitor’s Center that was built in 1976. This was the very place that I watched Ben Franklin, played by actor Eli Wallach, pontificating on our Founding Fathers’ greatest triumphs in Independence, a 30-minute introductory film directed by John Huston and created for the Bicentennial. It is not a far stretch to imagine that I was standing in the exact spot where, while on a field trip to Philadelphia in the 6th grade, I once sat in a dark room bored by Huston’s vision of “important” men debating in the gloomy Assembly room. I recently re-watched Independence and discovered a key scene my 12-year old self had missed as Dr. Benjamin Rush ponders whether “liberty” is substance or shadow as he reminds us not to confuse the American Revolution with the War for Independence. I was now standing in a museum which features that same Rush quote prominently in its core exhibit in celebration of the ongoing American Revolution. The revolution never ended, but is reflected in the evolving idea and influences of events that took place not just in America, but throughout the world.
As an institution, MoAR continues to think about the questions that the 18th century Revolutionaries left unresolved, the same questions that plague us today. How do we reconcile the common good with an individual’s right to liberty and property? How might a plethora of unique voices come together to speak as one? I think of that adage that there are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle. Imagine if we included every voice in the narrative? We might actually discover the truth.
Independence, a short film about the Founding Fathers, was created for the 1976 Bicentennial and screened for decades at the Welcome Center at Independence National Historical Park. | Video courtesy of the National Archives
In mid-March I had the honor of representing the National Society of the Colonial Dames in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to help hand out awards to the middle and high school students who competed at National History Day Philadelphia. It was incredible seeing the topics these students presented in exhibits, papers, documentaries, and websites. Yearly themes are developed to help students gain a deeper understanding of history by encouraging independent research and critical thinking through contextualizing information and revealing connections over time. The theme for 2023 was “Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas.” One award-winning exhibit dealt with recentering the narrative of the “father of modern gynecology,” commonly attributed to J. Marion Sims, onto the enslaved Black women whose bodies were used as unanesthetized test subjects. Another exhibit was centered on LGBTQ+ history and historic sites. There is no doubt that today’s youth are thinking bigger and deeper than any previous generation. They see history in its full complexity, full of a multitude of voices and experiences. An out-of-touch film like Independence featuring the ghostly voices of a room full of white men is never going to be enough for this generation.
So how do we move forward in a landscape filled with legislation seeking to silence expanded voices and stories? This was the question posed during a recent panel discussion, “It Begins with Each of Us: Fostering Racial Understanding,” co-hosted by MoAR and the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust. The event was moderated by MoAR’s director of education and community, Adrienne G. Whaley, with panelists Errin Hanes, the founder and editor-at-large for The 19th*, and Dr. Jesse McCarthy, professor of African American studies and English literature at Harvard University and the author of Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? I was fortified by what I took away from the discussion. The truth is, we don’t honor our heritage by denying the fullest story.
Looking back at history is always a useful tool in moving forward. It is not about creating white guilt, but acknowledging why discriminatory legislation was created to begin with. Dr. McCarthy pointed out that slavery was not systematically tied to race in the earliest days of the colonies. American law had been based on British Common law, but was altered through time. As in the case of Maryland and Virginia, which instituted laws against interracial marriage in 1681 and 1691 respectively. Interracial cooperation is always a problem for those who seek to maintain control. This was especially true during the Reconstruction Period in places like Mississippi and Louisiana, where fusion political tickets were popular in areas with a higher percentage of African Americans. Race is weaponized by politics when the economic interests of those in power are threatened, and the backlash of the loudest vocal minority is what resonates. We must see the urge to remove Black history from our education curriculum for what it is and always has been: a mere ploy to help people climb the political ladder.
The room we all sit in is no longer a shadowy space full of white men debating. The way forward is to face the hard truths, to continue to have an open dialogue by creating safe spaces for all, and to uplift the stories that have gone untold. The American Revolution continues as we strive for our more perfect union. I was reminded by this exhibition to use my voice. You should too.
Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia at Museum of the American Revolution in on view now through November 26, 2023. See exhibition details here: https://www.amrevmuseum.org/exhibits/black-founders-the-forten-family-of-philadelphia
On April 12, Museum of the American Revolution will host author and historian Dr. Julie Winch and Forten descendant Atwood “Kip” Forten Jacobs as part if its Read the Revolution Speakers Series. See event details here: https://www.amrevmuseum.org/events/read-the-revolution-speaker-series-with-julie-winch-featuring-atwood-kip-forten-jacobs