Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
A successful sail-maker and Revolutionary War veteran, James Forten was an active abolitionist from Philadelphia.
James Forten was born a free black man in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766. He ran a profitable sail-making business and worked toward equal rights between black and white Pennsylvanians. His belief in equality led him to write a pamphlet, Letters From A Man of Colour (1813), denouncing a racist bill then being considered in the Pennsylvania legislature. Later he became friends with William Lloyd Garrison. He helped to fund Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and contributed letters of opinion. Forten continued fighting against slavery until March 4, 1842, when he died at age 75.
James Forten was born on September 2, 1766, to free black parents, Thomas and Margaret, in the birthplace of the Constitution and center of the burgeoning American democracy: Philadelphia. In this gathering place for great thinkers, Forten would eventually become a communicator, social activist, and great thinker himself. His formal education was cut short when he had to discontinue his studies at the Friends' African School a few years after the death of his father; however, his love of reading and learning continued throughout his life. In order to help with the household bills, Forten found a job with a local grocer. The possibility of making more money led Forten to join the Continental Navy when he was 14 or 15. In 1781 he set sail on a privateer, a privately owned ship hunting British merchant vessels for their cargo, called the Royal Louis. The same year the privateer was captured by the British, and Forten, along with the rest of his shipmates, was held as a prisoner of war on the Jersey, a prison boat anchored in New York harbor. He spent seven months aboard the Jersey without being sold into slavery, perhaps because of a note written by the British captain who had captured the Royal Louis and was impressed with young James. The captain offered to send the teenager to England for an education with his own son, but Forten declined, refusing to be a traitor to his country. Instead, the captain arranged for Forten to be traded for a British prisoner, like the white prisoners on the Jersey, rather than to be sold as a slave.
When James Forten returned to Philadelphia in 1786, he was apprenticed to a sail-maker named Robert Bridges—his father's former employer and family friend. Forten learned quickly in the sail loft, where the large ship sails were cut and sewn, and before long became the foreman. At Robert Bridges' retirement in 1798, Forten bought the loft and by 1810 made it one of the most successful sail lofts in Philadelphia. Believing in equal rights, Forten continued to employ both black and white laborers. Because of his business acumen, Forten's sail loft was a great success and over the years made him one of the wealthiest Philadelphians in the city, black or white.
With his financial good fortune, James Forten could now afford to concentrate some of his energy on working towards the abolition of slavery, which he took to be one of his most important responsibilities as a prominent free black man in Philadelphia. In 1813 he wrote an anonymous pamphlet, although his authorship was never truly a secret, called Letters From A Man of Colour. The pamphlet denounced a bill the Pennsylvania legislature tried to pass requiring all black emigrants to Pennsylvania to be registered with the state. The bill was the result of many white Pennsylvanians' complaints about the large number of blacks moving up from the south. Forten saw the bill as a step backward for black Pennsylvanians and used his pamphlet to explain why. In his Letters, Forten argued that the bill would violate the rights of any free black people entering the state as well as enforce the general opinion that blacks were not equal to whites. Forten wanted the many respectable citizens of the black community to be recognized and valued in Philadelphia. In the end, the bill was not passed, and James Forten became known for his succinct and passionate pamphlet.
Years later Forten met William Lloyd Garrison, who would give him another outlet for his opinions. Garrison's abolitionist paper, The Liberator, was constantly in need of funds but always seemed to get what it needed from James Forten. Forten not only helped to keep his friend's paper afloat, but also found subscribers in Philadelphia for Garrison, circulated the paper around the city, and wrote letters to the paper that Garrison would publish under the name A Colored Philadelphian. Forten's favorite topics were prejudice, abolition, and the American Colonization Society, or ACS. Forten worked against the ACS almost as soon as it had been formed. It was an organization composed only of white members that sought to send black Americans to a colony, Liberia, in Africa where they might live better lives. Forten, like many other free blacks, believed the ACS was trying to simply get rid of free black people under the guise of helping them. Although the ACS advertised Liberia as a place of opportunity for free blacks, the truth was that the colony struggled to survive and many of the colonists were dying. Forten and Garrison published as much as they could in The Liberator to expose the poor living conditions in Liberia that the ACS never revealed. They wanted others to know that the ACS was not necessarily working in the best interest of black Americans. Despite the work of Forten and Garrison, free blacks continued to move to Liberia. Forten actively opposed the ACS his entire life.
James Forten wrote letters to The Liberator, worked in his sail loft, met with his abolitionist friends, and stayed active in the abolitionist movement until very late in his life. He lived in Philadelphia with his wife and eight children until March 4, 1842, when he died at the age of 75. Thousands of people, both black and white, attended his funeral.
Letters From A Man of Colour. Philadelphia, 1813.
Blockson, Charles L. The Liberty Bell Era: The African American Story. Harrisburg: RB Books, 2003.
Douty, Esther M. Forten the Sailmaker: Pioneer Champion of Negro Rights. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1968.
Newman, Richard, Patrick Rael, and Philip Lapsanksky, eds. Pamphlets of Protest. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Winch, Julie. A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.