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James Forten (September 2, 1766March 4, 1842) was an African-American abolitionist and wealthy businessman. He worked at many jobs, including dentist, carpenter, and minutemen.

Forten was born free in Philadelphiamarker, Pennsylvaniamarker, he also attended the African School, run by abolitionist Anthony Benezet, which was established by Quakers for free black children. After his father died, Forten started working at age seven to help out his mother and sister, first as a chimney sweep and then as a grocery-store clerk. His mother insisted that he still go to school for at least two more years. By age nine, Forten left school to work full-time. He used his early experience at work as a measuring stick for the rest of his career and life.

At the age of 15, during the Revolutionary War, Forten served on the privateer Royal Louis, where he invented a device to handle ship sails. He played a game of marbles with captain Beasley's son when he was captured and they became friends. The result of this friendship was that James didn't become a slave so was treated as a regular prisoner of war and was sent to the English prison ship Jersey. After the war, he was apprenticed as a sailmaker. In 1786 he became a shop foreman. Soon Forten started his own sailmaking company; with the income he generated from this successful business, he became one of the wealthiest blacks in post-colonial America.

Forten, with the help of Reverend Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, enlisted 2,500 blacks to guard Philadelphia during the War of 1812.

Political and social activism

Although never elected to political office, and effectively disfranchised, James Forten was a shrewd political operator. Year by year he grew in stature as a public figure. By the 1830s, his was one of the most powerful black voices, not just for men and women of color in his native city, but for many thousands more throughout the North. He knew how to use the press and the speaker’s podium. He knew about building alliances, when to back down and when to press forward with his agenda. His rise to prominence his understanding of the nature of power and authority, his determination to speak out and be heard are object hi lessons in the realities of community politics. Disfranchised he might have been, but voiceless he never was.

Forten used his wealth from the industry to advocate for temperance, women's suffrage, and above all, equal rights for African Americans. Forten believed Blacks should work to improve their situation in the United States and should be granted equal protection under the law.

"Back in 1800, he was among the signers of a petition to the U.S. Congress calling for the abolition of the slave trade and the modification of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. In 1813, he authored a pamphlet, ‘A Series of Letters by a Man of Color,’ opposing a Pennsylvania Senate bill that restricted black immigration into the state, often the first refuge for freed people, as well as for runaways." (3)

Forten and Reverend Allen also worked together to establish the first Convention of Color in 1817. This organization argued for the settlement of escaped black slaves in Canadamarker but strongly opposed plans for repatriation to Africa. Forten did not believe African Americans should leave their "own" land and therefore stood against the agenda and activities of the American Colonization Society. Forten was an integral part of many protests against the Society. Just before Abraham Camp spoke about wanting to leave America, Forten led a protest against the American Colonization Society and acted as chair of the protest held at Bethel Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He specifically opposed the Britishmarker policy of resettling black Loyalist veterans of the Revolutionary War in Sierra Leonemarker.

"In 1817, Forten and Bishop Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church organized 3,000 black Philadelphians to speak out against the activities of the American Colonization Society, which was working to establish a colony outside the United States for African Americans."

The Haitian Revolution created some support for American blacks to emigrate to Haiti after it achieved independence, as it was a black-led republic. Its independence introduced many complex issues for free Blacks in the United States. James Forten was one of the important Black leaders who were entirely against any emigration movements. He firmly believed that Blacks should be allowed to play an equal role in the United States, proposing that it was far better to fight for an egalitarian US society rather than to flee the country.

Forten had not always stood against emigration and the American Colonization Society plans to "...send free and freed blacks to Africa. On one occasion, he had even given money to the ACS. He also supported Paul Cuffee…who transported thirty-eight people to Sierra Leone in 1815. Later Forten changed his mind, however. He came to consider the ACS as working against the interests of American blacks, and became a fierce opponent of re-Africanization.

In 1833, Forten helped William Lloyd Garrison and Robert Purvis form the American Anti-Slavery Society. He gave it generous financial support over the years. He also contributed occasional articles to Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.

Marriage and family

Forten married twice; his first wife, Martha "Patty" Beatty died after only a few months of marriage, and in 1806, he married Charlotte Vandine (1786-1886). Their children were Robert Bridges Forten, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, Sarah Louisa Forten Purvis, Charlotta Forten, William Deas Forten, Mary Theresa Forten, Thomas Willing Francis Forten and James Forten, Jr., who, with his brother Robert, succeeded his father in the family sailmaking business.

Like his father, Forten's son Robert was a vigorous anti-slavery activist. Forten's daughters Harriet and Sarah Louisa married the abolitionist brothers Robert Purvis and Joseph Purvis, respectively. The Fortens' daughter Margaretta was an officer of the Female Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1845 and a lifelong educator.

Carrying forward the family legacy to a new generation, the Fortens' granddaughter Charlotte Forten Grimké was a poet, educator and, of course, abolitionist.

When James Forten died, he left behind an exemplary family, a sizable fortune, and a legacy of philanthropy and activism that inspired generations of black Philadelphians.

External links


  1. Winch, Julie, “A gentleman of color: the life of James Forten”: 16, quoted in James Forten (New York: Oxford University Press 2002).
  2. Tonya Bolden, “Strong Men Keep Coming” The Book of African American Men: 31, quoted in James Forten (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1999), 31.
  3. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  • Willard Sterne and Nahra, Nancy. "Forgotten Americans: Footnote Figures who Changed American History." Perseus Books Group, United States, 1998. ISBN 0-7382-0150-2.
  • Richard Newman, "Not the Only Story in 'Amistad': The Fictional Joadson and the Real James Forten," Pennsylvania History (67, 2000): 218-239.

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