Black Founders, the Forten Family of Philadelphia
The Museum of the American Revolution
February 11, 2023 - November 26, 2023
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church is one of the most historic buildings in Philadelphia – and the United States. Founded in 1794, Mother Bethel, as the church is popularly known, was the site of a crucial meeting in early U.S. history. Three thousand African American men assembled there on January 15, 1817 to discuss a proposal for emigration to a site in West Africa where a colony, free of racial discrimination, would be founded.
To the surprise of the clergymen and civic leaders who had convened the meeting, the proposal was emphatically rejected. Virtually without dissent, the answer shouted from the church pews was a ‘tremendous no.”
Many of the three thousand African-Americans crowding into Mother Bethel were native-born and a number had fought in the Revolutionary War. The United States was their country, their home. They would not leave their land.
One of the most prominent participants at the Mother Bethel meeting was a Revolutionary War hero named James Forten. The Museum of the American Revolution, located in Philadelphia, has recently opened a special exhibition entitled Black Founders, devoted to James Forten and his extraordinary family.
James Forten (1766-1842) was born in Philadelphia, a member of the city’s free Black population. As a young boy, he heard the Declaration of Independence proclaimed on July 8, 1776. After witnessing a regiment of African-American and Native-American troops of George Washington’s army march en route to the siege of Yorktown in 1781, the young Forten determined to join the Patriot cause.
This moment is celebrated by a painting by Don Troiani, whose accurate depictions of the American Revolution were featured in an earlier Art Eyewitness review.
Forten enlisted in the American navy. The ship he served on, the Royal Louis, was captured by the British and Forten endured a harsh captivity on a prison ship moored in New York Harbor. And that was just the beginning of his extraordinary life story!
After the Revolution, Forten worked his way to owning a maritime supply company making sails and rope for the merchant ships based in Philadelphia. A partial reconstruction of Forten's sail loft is the centerpiece of the exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution.
As well as documenting Forten’s life, the exhibition extends his family’s story to the Civil War era of the 1860’s. Forten's wife, children and grand daughter, Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914), who compiled an important diary of the Civil War years, were ardent activists in the anti-slavery cause.
Along with the rise of the Abolitionist movement in the U.S., the exhibition also surveys social life, entrepreneurship and “self-reliance” in the African-American community during the early Republic era.
History is often a frustratingly complex subject. One would think that the life of a patriot like James Forten and the anti-slavery cause might evade some of the moral entanglements which feature in other historical incidents. However, James Forten was actually one of the leaders who initially favored the African colonization scheme. He was the presiding officer at the Mother Bethel meeting and one of the recipients of the ‘tremendous no.”
The Mother Bethel meeting was a lesson in democracy. Forten and fellow African American leaders were amazed by the unanimous decision of "rank-and-file" citizens not to relinquish their birthright of liberty for a "promise" of greater prosperity elsewhere. And it is to Forten's credit that he listened and followed their lead.
With renewed determination, Forten joined in the resistance to the colonization scheme. Years later, he wrote with quiet conviction, "We are contented in the land that gave us birth and which many of us fought for during the war which established our Independence."
The topics covered so brilliantly in the Black Founders exhibit are, for the most part, political and social ones. However, a number of the artifacts on view provide insight into the visual art scene in the U.S. during the first decades of the nineteenth century. This was a time of considerable difficulty as many promising American artists went to Europe and remained there, sometimes for life. Little of what we might now deem as “fine” art was created, though there were some tentative efforts in landscape painting. Art related to the lives of African Americans was extremely rare.
Despite these unpromising conditions, a vigorous, “homespun” art began to develop in the United States during the early 1800’s. Thus, the exhibition objects on view in Black Founders are hugely important. These artifacts document the African American experience and the efforts of American artists to gain recognition on their home turf.
The most significant feature of the Black Founders exhibit is its demonstration of how "material culture", treasured personal items or the objects of daily life, relates to high-sounding concepts. One can recite "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" but the sight of a family Bible or a regimental battle flag supplies a tangible reality to these noble words.
The signature work of the exhibition is an impressive portrait in profile of an African-American gentleman. It is on loan from the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Dating to around the time of the Mother Bethel meeting, it has long be regarded as a portrait of James Forten. However, it lacks any formal title and is not signed on the back of the canvas.
Is it James Forten? We know that Forten’s wife treasured a portrait of him after he died in 1842. Charlotte Vandine Forten lived until 1884, so that there was no need to identify the painting on her behalf. By the time the portrait reached the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, its reputation as being a likeness of Forten was secure.
That is far from the kind of exacting detail required by art historians. The curators of the Black Founders exhibit are quite forthright about the lack of positive documentation. Two other works, one of them an early photo, are also considered. Judging from the evidence, neither of these is likely to portray Forten.
From a purely artistic point of view, the profile portrait is a professional caliber, though second-rank, painting. It is exactly the kind of work that an affluent, “self-made” man like Forten would have favored. A fair likeness and a good investment!
This is also the type of portrait, typical of American painters working in the domestic market during the early 1800's. These "limners", often unknown today and under-appreciated, laid the foundation for subsequent American art.
With other works of art on view in Black Founders, we are on firmer ground when it comes to proof and provenance. Thanks to the generosity of descendants of James Forten, a table from the Forten home, the Forten family Bible and needlepoint "samplers" by his daughters, Mary and Margaretta, are on view in the exhibition.
James Forten was a seafaring man and a business executive involved with maritime trade. When the news of the naval victory of the USS Constitution over the British warship Guerriere during the War of 1812 reached Philadelphia, Forten subscribed to a fund to present a silver urn honoring Captain Isaac Hull, the commander of "Old Ironsides".
Along with the Civil War battle flag of the 127th U.S. Colored Troops (shown above), this silver urn reinforces and reminds us of the patriotism of James Forten and African American heroes like him. The Museum of the American Revolution is devoted to such noble sentiments. But there is much more involved here than merely placing relics of the past in glass cases.
In an impressive initiative, the curators of the Museum of the American Revolution are teaming with Ancestry® to make available an archive of 200 documents relating to African American and Native American soldiers who served during the Revolutionary War. These primary sources of historical record - muster rolls, pay vouchers, enlistment papers, and discharge forms - will soon be available for online searching, free of charge.
James Forten was born ten years before the Declaration of Independence and died twenty years before the Emancipation Proclamation. His life -and the superb exhibition at the Museum of the American Revolution - bring to mind the memorable words of John Adams in 1818.
Long before the first shots at the battles of Lexington and Concord, "the radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people" had already occurred. This, Adams wrote, "was the real American Revolution."
One of the hearts where this "real American Revolution" took place was James Forten's.