This Museum of the American Revolution board member discovered a familial connection to James Forten

While growing up in Ambler, the daughter of an electrical engineer, Karla Trotman had never heard about James Forten.

Forten, a Black sail-loft company owner who was the wealthiest Black man in Philadelphia in the 1800s, was a leader in the abolitionist movement.

“That history wasn’t being taught in our schools,” said Trotman, a board member of the Museum of the American Revolution and also cochair of the museum’s Black Founders exhibition committee.

That exhibition, “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia,” which tells Forten’s story and the stories of his family, is winding down. The last day to see it is Nov. 26, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

James Forten’s story is a remarkable one: He was born free in Philadelphia in 1766 and heard the Declaration of Independence being read aloud for the first time when he was 9 years old. At age 14, Forten served on an American privateer ship during the Revolutionary War, carrying gun powder to the cannons to fight the British.

Years later, Forten so impresed Robert Bridges, the owner of the sail-loft company where both Forten and his father worked, that Bridges made Forten a foreman and an apprentice. When Bridges retired, Forten took over the business and employed both Black and white workers.

Not only did Forten use his wealth to support abolitionist causes, his family members were also civic-minded about freedom and gaining citizenship rights.

Forten’s wife Charlotte Vandine Forten and three of their daughters, Margaretta, Harriet and Sarah, were active in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Slavery Society. One of his sons, Robert Bridges Forten , enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops as a sergeant during the Civil War, but died from an illness during training. Another son, William Deas Forten, worked with Frederick Douglass to recruit Black men to enlist to serve in the war.

Like Forten, Trotman is an entrepreneur

Trotman is president and CEO of Electro Soft Inc., an electronics manufacturing and engineering firm in Montgomeryville that her parents, Jim and Sheila Wallace, started in 1986.

She worked for more than 10 years in the corporate world before returning to her family’s company and expanding it.

She no longer wanted to travel as much as she had been doing. And, she realized that it was through entrepreneurship that Black people can pass down wealth down to their children.

At a museum panel discussion on the history of Black entrepreneurs in Philadelphia recently, she said she was working on the Black Founders committee when she learned surprising news.

“When I was asked to be cochair of the exhibition, I found out my family were related to James Forten,” she told the audience.

Her mother-in-law, Anita Trotman, a dedicated genealogist, explained their family connection to the Fortens.

The connection is through James Forten’s granddaughter, Charlotte L. Forten, whose diaries about her time teaching newly emancipated Black people in the Sea Islands off South Carolina during the Civil War, was published as a book: The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten.

Charlotte was the daughter of James Forten’s son, Robert and his wife, Mary Virginia Wood Forten. After Charlotte’s mother died when Charlotte was only 3, Charlotte was raised mostly by an aunt, a sister of Charlotte’s mother.

Trotman said that aunt is her husband Thane Trotman’s fifth great-grandmother. Trotman said her husband had not talked about their family history but her mother-in-law had discovered their family’s connections to other historic Philadelphia figures as well.

“When I found out that Forten was a family member, and because we are a family of entrepreneurs [as was Forten] I decided to be one of the sponsors of the exhibition.

“I was financially committed to telling the story of Black Founders. This story can’t be told without financial backing.”

Son’s love of history is motivating factor

Trotman once thought a museum about the American Revolution would hold little interest for her.

She had not known about Black people’s contributions to the Revolutionary War until the younger of her two sons — Dylan and Bryce — fell in love with the musical, Hamilton.

Now 15, Bryce was 8 when he became fascinated with the American Revolution as well as the story of how Vice President Aaron Burr shot and fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton, the former Secretary of the Treasury, in a duel in 1804. Hamilton died the next day.

While most people were more sympathetic to Hamilton, Trotman said she was surprised that Bryce was fascinated with Burr.

“I think he [Bryce] was in the fourth grade when he created a rap [song] about Burr for his class,” Trotman recalled. To encourage Bryce’s interest in history, Trotman took him to the Museum of the American Revolution:

“He would lay on the floor on his side, with his hand propped up, watching the videos like they were Saturday morning cartoons.”

As they visited the museum, Trotman said she was impressed with how it told the history of the revolution.

“I was surprised how they were telling stories of how people who were formerly enslaved had been approached by the British who told them, ‘We will set you free, if you fight for us.’

“You had people of color fighting one another, [those who fought on the Continental Army’s side and those who fought for the British]. But everyone was trying to fight for their own freedom.”

A few years ago, Trotman, now 47, was invited to an awards ceremony where she met two museum officials. In 2019, she was asked to join the museum’s corporate advisory council, and in 2021, she joined the museum’s Board of Directors.

“Karla is truly a force of nature. While running a business and raising a family, she has given time, talent, and treasure as a volunteer advisor, community ambassador, and a corporate sponsor for the Black Founders exhibit,” R. Scott Stephenson, President and CEO of the Museum of the American Revolution, said.

“And she made all of those commitments before finding out that she is also a Forten family descendant! The Forten family legacy lives on in her.”

About that Aaron Burr obsession

But getting back to Bryce Trotman’s fascination with Aaron Burr.

After learning of Bryce’s interest in the infamous former vice president, Anita Trotman told Karla that her children are descendants of Aaron Burr, through his “colored” children with a servant who had probably been born in India, Mary Eugénie Emmons. Aaron Burr and Emmons had two children: John Pierre Burr, born in 1792, and Louisa Burr, born in 1784.

Anita and Jim Trotman, Karla Trotman’s in-laws, are cited in an academic paper on the life of Louisa Burr. It made national news when a new headstone was placed on John Pierre Burr’s grave.

Karla Trotman described it as a pleasant, almost mystical shock to learn of these connections to both James Forten and Aaron Burr.

“Sometimes there are just no mistakes or accidents. It’s feels very intentional. … It’s almost as if the ancestors had called to my son to pull this together.”

The Museum of the American Revolution, 101 S. Third St. is open daily, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Black Founders Special Exhibition, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here, or call 215-253-6731.

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