By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Content Agency

James Forten may be one of the most important Black leaders you’ve never heard of.

The Philadelphian — and his family — were influential from the Revolutionary War to the abolitionist movement, as well as in business. In 1833, they helped start the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and also took an active role in defending the union cause during the Civil War and later, voting rights, and civil liberties for African Americans.

Now, as we celebrate Black History Month, the illustrious family is the subject of a new special exhibition Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, at the Museum of the American Revolution that will run through November.

Museum of African American History and Culture, (NMAAHC) construction site
Museum of African American History and Culture, (NMAAHC) construction site

“Many people will recognize aspects of their own families: parents working for a better life for their children, families supporting each other when the world seems to be in chaos, communities coming together around shared values,” said Rebecca Franco, the museum’s manager of Family Programs.

She notes there are many interactive opportunities — dressing like a sailor as you learn about James Forten’s life aboard a privateer ship, for example, or listening to the music the Fortens would have played. There is a printed Family Guide with activities for all ages.

“This exhibit also provides an important opportunity to learn about the wide range of people who were involved in the founding of our nation, including free and enslaved people of African descent. We believe that a more inclusive story of America’s founding is a more accurate story,” Franco added.

Across the country, there are new exhibits highlighting the contributions of African Americans to our nation’s history and culture.

If you are in Chicago, there’s The Negro Motorist Green Book exhibit at the Illinois Holocaust Museum (through April 23 ). The exhibit shares the history of “The Green Book,” the annual travel guide created in 1936 that provided African-American travelers with information on businesses that welcomed Black travelers during the Jim Crow era and literally became the bible of Black travel for more than 30 years.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington DC

Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry’s (MOHAI) new exhibit, From the Ground Up: Black Architects and Designers, explores the history of Black architects who from the 1800s designed iconic landmarks and paved the way for future generations. Families will appreciate the interactives, including a touch table of building materials and the chance to design a floor plan.

The Boca Raton Museum of Art is the first stop on the national tour of Whitfield Lovell: Passages, the largest exhibit of Lovell’s work focusing on lost African-American history.

You might need to explain to the kids that the Underground Railroad was not actually a hidden train. It refers to the efforts of enslaved African Americans to escape with the assistance of people who opposed slavery and willingly chose to help them escape.

The National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program consists of nearly 700 sites in 39 states, plus Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands with connections to the Underground Railroad. (Download the Network to Freedom’s Junior Ranger Booklet or the virtual Lost in Disguise activity, which focuses on how freedom seekers used disguises in their flight. The activity encourages kids to create their own disguise.)

Buffalo Soldiers

This National Park Service link can help you plan a visit to African American Heritage sites, including many you may not know. For example, Henry Ossian Flipper was born in slavery and became the first African American graduate of West Point. Learn more about him and the Black cavalry troopers, known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” at the Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of one of the most important documents in the nation’s history, the Emancipation Proclamation. Early copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment are on display in the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. (See Black History Month programming here.)

At the same time, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has recently opened a new Entertainment Nation exhibit with objects and stories from many athletes, musicians, singers and actors, including Prince’s guitar and Ali’s boxing robe.

Washington, D.C., is a terrific place to learn about Black history firsthand. (The new edition of my “Kid’s Guide to Washington DC” will be out this spring!)

Of course, you will want to visit the Lincoln Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, with its 30-foot statue of Dr. King carved into what is known as the Stone of Hope. (It stands past two other pieces of granite known as the Mountain of Despair, references to his “I Have A Dream” speech.)

The National Mall has been the site of vital African American history, including the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. (Download the free national parks app to DC’s national parks).

Have dinner at one of the many Black-owned restaurants.

Rosa Parks, who famously wouldn’t give up her seat on a bus in 1955, helping to ignite the civil rights movement, lived in Washington, D.C., and The O Museum in the Mansion offers the interactive Mrs. Rosa Parks Tour (ready to search for hidden doors?)

Mount Vernon

Learn about the enslaved people who built and lived at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home just outside Washington, D.C., in Virginia. There were more than 300 enslaved people working and living here, allowing Washington to profit from enslavement. He only arranged to free those he enslaved after his death.

Before you leave, make sure to experience Black Lives Matter Plaza (a portion of 16th Street, just north of Lafayette Square) that has become a city-commissioned mural emblazoned with the powerful civil rights message in yellow lettering. The landmark has become a symbol for free speech and the push for racial and social equality in America.

There are lots of places for contemplation — and learning.

(For more Taking the Kids, visit and also follow TakingTheKids on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. The Kid’s Guide to Philadelphia and The Kid’s Guide to Camping are the latest in a series of 14 books for kid travelers published by Eileen.)

©2023 Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.