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Philadelphia's 'Liberty' exhibit spotlights role of people of color in American Revolution


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new exhibit titled Liberty in Philadelphia seeks to tell a more inclusive story of the American revolution, introducing visitors to people critical to building the nation, but whose names they have likely never heard.

John Yang visited as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

John Yang: At first glance, this painting at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia looks like a typical depiction of the time, but take a closer look.

It's a little known moment in U.S. history, the Rhode Island Regiment, which had two companies of soldiers who were Native American or of African descent, marching past Independence Hall.

Michael Idriss, African American Interpretive Fellow, Museum of the American Revolution: This is just an incredible scene that, when I laid eyes on it for the first time, just really helped to center the contributions of people of African descent.

John Yang: Michael Idriss is the museum's African American interpretive fellow.

Michael Idriss: This group is primarily African American. They are led by a white commanding officer. And in the middle of this is this young man who is looking at this scene. His name is James Forten, that these men were a brave of men as ever fought.

John Yang: Forten's words, brave men as ever fought, give this painting its name. It was commissioned by the museum as the centerpiece of a special exhibit called Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the Revolutionary War.

Forten is an unheralded Revolutionary War figure, a grandson of enslaved people who was born free. He fought in the war as a teenager and later became a wealthy businessman and leading abolitionist.

Man: We deserve life, liberty and happiness.

John Yang: A play about his life opens on Veterans Day, part of the museum's efforts to showcase the diversity of American history.

Adrienne Whaley, Director of Education and Community Engagement, Museum of the American Revolution: There are approximately 2.5 million people in British North America on the eve of the American Revolution, and they are not all John Adams, right?

John Yang: Adrienne Whaley is the museum's director of education and community engagement.

Adrienne Whaley: If we are not looking at a story of the American Revolution that is inclusive of all of those people, we're doing poor history, number one.

But, number two, we're not providing people with the opportunity to understand how they themselves and communities like theirs might have been dealing with the challenges and the complications of this crazy, chaotic, hopeful, beautiful, challenging time.

Scott Stephenson, President and CEO, Museum of the American Revolution: We had hoped that we could sort of be an American Revolution 3.0 museum, a place that focuses more on asking questions.

John Yang: Scott Stephenson is president and CEO of the museum, which opened in 2017.

Scott Stephenson: Washington's army at Yorktown in 1781 may have been as much as 25 percent soldiers of color.

We want to teach people to be historians, rather than sort of be passive, passively walking through a museum, just looking at the artifacts and a traditional kind of telling. We really wanted it to be interrogative experience.

When our kids come through, they have a character card.

A museum that's about inquiry that asks questions, that's the best kind of learning, I think, that that we can we can possibly do for our rising generations.

John Yang: The museum's core exhibit includes many little-noted stories:, the fiercely debated decision by the Oneida Nation of Native Americans to support the revolution, enslaved women like Phillis Wheatley, the first African American and only second woman in North America to publish a book of poetry, and enslaved people of African descent who fought for the British in exchange for their freedom.

That's illustrated in this tableau called Sometimes Freedom Wore a Red Coat. It depicts a woman overhearing a young enslaved man telling a friend he was running away to join the Red Coats. By design, all the figures are the likenesses of people now living.

Adrienne Whaley: One of the reasons that we do that is really just to help to emphasize the fact that these are real lifelike. Like, they have got the breath and the blood of real people in them, right? When you look at a figure like this that's actually been life-cast, right, and you start to be able to make connections to the people and the stories of the past.

John Yang: And you talked about being life-cast. This is you. This is your skin. This is your face

Adrienne Whaley: This is literally me. This is my skin. This is my face. One of the first things that I was asked to do at the museum was to lend my likeness to one of the tableau figures.

John Yang: There are also flesh-and-blood interpreters in costumes playing the roles of historical figures. The museum's Black interpreters portray both enslaved and free people.

Kalea Williams, Historical Interpreter, Museum of the American Revolution: You know, other Black folks will look at me and say, how does it feel to portray a slave?

And I generally don't. But, of course, I would. That's a role that I would like to portray. To me, there's beauty in portraying who was there,

John Yang: Currently, Williams portrays Helena Harris, a Philadelphia schoolteacher, a rare profession for a Black woman in the 1790s.

Kalea Williams: We have a very narrow idea of where Black folks played a role in the history of the United States. I want people to come away with the understanding that black history is U.S. history. Indigenous history is U.S. history, is world history, is all of our history.

Everyone's history is part of who we collectively are.

John Yang: Michael Idriss, the interpretive fellow, portrays a Philadelphia baker based on Cyrus Bustill, a formerly enslaved man who owned a successful bakery.

Michael Idriss: I want to tell stories that meet people of African descent at bedrock, at inception. I want people to understand that the stories of people of African descent are centered there as well among others that are part of this a revolutionary story.

John Yang: Idriss says it also serves to draw a direct line from the 18th century to today's reexamination of racial justice.

Does that affect you, this bridging of centuries and what's going on now and what was going on then?

Michael Idriss: Pinning back history is really important. It's a way of revealing that there has always been tension. This is an experiment that is ongoing. The museum speaks to that. It's a revolution that is ongoing in so many respects.

Adrienne Whaley: I think that we have this opportunity to tell diverse stories at a moment when so many members of the public are really, really hungry for those diverse stories.

John Yang: That resonates with many visitors, like current Alabama schoolteacher Shae Deason.

Shae Deason, Teacher: It's neat to see someone that looks like you, to know that, hey, you do care about my history. You do see it. You know, we were there too.

John Yang: And retired teacher Gary Stringfellow of California.

Gary Stringfellow, Retired Teacher: That's the part that puts the tears in my eyes, because we're in the room where it happened. I will borrow from "Hamilton." But you're also seeing everybody's point of view.

John Yang: Points of view that haven't always been included in history books.

The exhibit Liberty: Don Troiani's Paintings of the Revolutionary War runs through September 2022.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Philadelphia.

Judy Woodruff: The history that we all need to learn.

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