UMass Boston Professor, Students Bring Unfamiliar Story to Life for Teens

Colleen Locke | March 31, 2011

UMass Boston Professor of History Julie Winch heard the same comment each time she assigned her 2002 book Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten to her students, many of them K-12 teachers.

Her classes couldn’t believe they had never learned about James Forten, a successful African American entrepreneur, fervent abolitionist, and civil rights crusader in pre-Civil War era Philadelphia. They wanted to teach Forten’s story to their students but thought the book might be too complicated for a young adult audience.

“... They kept saying to me, ‘We’ve never heard of this guy. We’d like to share this with [our] students, but clearly the students in high school are not going to wade through 450-odd pages,’” Winch said.

So a year ago, Winch started adapting her self-described “scholarly” book for a wider audience, telling the story of Forten, one of the most powerful black voices of the Northeast in the 1830s, in words a 15- or 16-year-old student could easily understand. She self-published James Forten: Liberty’s Black Champion earlier this year, after seeking and incorporating feedback from her students.

Winch enlisted about a dozen of her undergraduate students in her spring 2010 U.S. history survey class to help her edit the book, offering them the chance to give her “intelligent feedback” on chapters she had reshaped in lieu of other weekly assignments.

“When you start to get four or five [students] saying, ‘I’m really confused about’ whatever it might be, or ‘Please cut the stuff on the sailmaking,’ then it’s a good bet you need to go back and revisit that [part],” Winch said.

What Winch wrote in several paragraphs or pages in her original text, she was often able to cut to a few lines in her new edition. The new version also includes a timeline and illustrations, including photographs from Forten’s descendants.

Winch’s students say they got a lot out of the experience. “I learned a good deal about a noteworthy American I was previously unaware of,”  student Melvin F. Clark, Jr. said.

“The information in Julie Winch's work is new for me, and it is a very useful biography to learn about American history of black people,” Miko Rin said.

Winch is currently back at work on a more “scholarly” book about the Mammoth Cheese, but says she may consider doing another work for a younger audience in the future. “I think I would try it again,” she said.

Who is James Forten?

While many people have heard of William Lloyd Garrison, who visited James Forten’s home, they haven’t heard of Forten. That’s because until Winch wrote Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten in 2002, no one had written a definitive biography about him.

Forten (1766-1842) earned a great deal of wealth as a free black businessman-sailmaker in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By the 1830s, he was a passionate abolitionist and civil rights activist, well known and respected by his contemporaries in the northern part of the United States.

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