James Forten

Aug 2nd, 2010 | By | Category: Business
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James Forten 1766-1842 James Forten used his success as a sailmaker in Philadelphia to advance the abolitionist cause. He founded numerous organizations to aid recently freed or escaped slaves, and donated a large part of his personal fortune to this purpose.

Sailor, Sailmaker

Forten was born on September 2, 1766, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents, Thomas and Margaret Forten who were both the children of slaves, afforded their son every opportunity that was available to them. The young couple enrolled Forten at a Quaker school for black children called the Friend’s African School, run by Anthony Benezet. Forten was a curious student and through Benezet, was introduced to the works of many seminal, early American writers.

Although Forten excelled at the school, the family’s financial situation demanded that he also work from an early age to help support his mother and younger sister. In 1774, he joined his father in the Philadelphia shipyards, working for Robert Bridges, a prominent local businessman and sailmaker. When his father died in an accident the following year, the nine-year-old Forten instantly became the sole breadwinner for the small family and was forced to leave the Quaker school. After working for a short period as a chimney sweep, he found a job in a local grocery.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, Forten joined the Navy and at age 15, became a powder boy on the Royal Louis, a privately owned ship that hunted British merchant vessels for their cargo. On the Royal Louis� second outing, it encountered the Amphylon, a heavily armed British frigate, and the crew were forced to surrender. As a black prisoner of war, Forten faced the common punishment of being sold into slavery in the West Indies. However, his early education and extensive knowledge of boats and rigging brought him to the attention of the captain of the Amphylon who offered to send Forten back to England to continue his education. Despite his desperate situation, he refused the captain’s generous offer, claiming that it would be a direct betrayal of his country to accept.
When the crew of the Royal Louis was transferred to the prisoner ship, the Jersey, Forten’s friendship with the captain of the Amphylon spared him from being sold to slave traders with all the other black prisoners. He spent seven months on the Jersey, and was eventually set free in exchange for the release of several British prisoners. After many months as a prisoner at sea, Forten landed in New York, and had no other option for the long journey home but to set out on foot.

Arriving back in Philadelphia in 1786, Forten applied to his father’s former employer and friend, Robert Bridges, for help. Bridges took him on as an apprentice in his sail loft, and with hard work and ambition, he quickly rose to the position of foreman. By the time Bridges retired in 1798, Forten had saved enough money to buy the sail loft, and over the next 10 years, he turned the small business into one of the largest sail producers in Philadelphia.

Political Action and Abolition

During this period, Forten married Charlotte Vandine. As their family grew to include eight children, he also began to play an active role in local politics within the Philadelphia community. From the moment Forten took over Bridge’s sail loft, he had implemented a practice of equal rights for Blacks and Whites. He employed both black and white workers, and paid them equal salaries. As Forten’s business became more and more successful, his wealth gave him the means to encourage other businesses in the area to adopt similar practices.

In 1813, Forten wrote and published a pamphlet titled Letters From a Man of Colour, denouncing a bill in front of the Philadelphia legislature that demanded all newly arrived Blacks be registered with the state. In the pamphlet, he outlined his beliefs that free Blacks in Pennsylvania should be allowed to establish themselves without the setbacks of racial discrimination. As more and more freed slaves moved north in search of work, Forten also was afraid that the language of the bill would encourage the growing anti-African American sentiments of many white Philadelphians. The bill did not pass, in large part due to his efforts.

In 1817, Forten joined forces with outspoken abolitionist Reverend Richard Allen to establish the first Convention of Color. This organization brought together wealthy African Americans to help the growing wave of escaped slaves fleeing the south. Although the organization attempted to settle many of the ex-slaves in Canada, Forten believed strongly that there should be a safe and equal place for black people in America. He became one of the most outspoken opponents of the all-white American Colonization Society, or ACS, which worked to send black Americans back to Africa. Forten strongly believed that shipping Blacks out of the country only perpetuated and validated racism and discrimination.

As a result of his political activism, Forten met William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. With substantial financial backing provided by Forten, Garrison was able to research and run extensive reports on the African settlements in Liberia that were being promoted by the ACS. Contrary to the ACS’s propaganda, conditions in these settlements were proven to be very poor, and many African Americans died from starvation or disease soon after arriving there. Garrison continued to publish articles about the ACS throughout the 1820s and 1830s. Forten himself died on March 4, 1842, in Philadelphia.

Forten played an active role in the abolitionist movement right up until his death. He regularly contributed letters and articles to The Liberator and supported the newspaper with his substantial fortune. In 1833, he was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and served as president of the American Moral Reform Society. Thousands of friends, supporters, and community members attended Forten’s funeral. Several of his children, influenced by their father’s unwavering equal rights beliefs, became prominent and influential anti-slavery activists in the following generations.

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