Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
James Forten was born a free citizen in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766, during the time of slavery. Working his way to wealth with self-taught skills and dedication, Forten ran a profitable sail-making business and worked toward equal rights between 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 helped to fund William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and contributed letters of opinion. Forten continued fighting against slavery until March 4, 1842, when he died at the age of 75.
James Forten was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 2, 1766, to Thomas and Margaret Forten, who were free African American citizens during the time of slavery. James attended Anthony Benezet’s Quaker “Negro School at Philadelphia” as a child and, around 1774, he began working with his father as a sailmaker in Robert Bridges’ sail loft. He had to discontinue his studies after the death of his father; however, his love of reading and learning continued throughout his life. To help with the household bills, Forten found a second job with a local grocer.
The possibility of cementing his political rights as a citizen of Philadelphia led Forten to join the Continental Navy when he was 14. In 1780 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 into slavery.
When James Forten returned to Philadelphia in 1786, he continued working at Robert Bridges’ sail loft. Impressing Bridges with his skill and dedication, he was quickly promoted to foreman of the loft. At Robert Bridges' retirement in 1798, Forten was left in charge of the loft and eventually bought out Bridges as the owner. By 1810, Forten made it one of the most successful sail lofts in Philadelphia. Believing in equal rights, Forten remained dedicated to equal rights and demonstrated this in his hiring of 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, African American or white.
Forten used the significant wealth he earned in this business to support the abolitionist cause. In 1813, he wrote a series of an anonymous pamphlets, although his authorship was never truly a secret, called Letters From A Man of Colour. The pamphlets denounced a bill the Pennsylvania legislature tried to pass requiring all African American emigrants to Pennsylvania to be registered with the state. The bill was the result of many white Pennsylvanians' complaints about the large number of former slaves moving up from the south. Forten saw the bill as a step backward for African American Pennsylvanians. In his Letters, Forten argued that the bill would violate the rights of any free African Americans 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 pamphlets.
Years later, Forten met and befriended William Lloyd Garrison, who would give him another outlet for his opinions. Garrison's abolitionist paper, The Liberator, was constantly in need of funds and readers; to keep it afloat, Forten found new subscribers in Philadelphia to increase circulation and wrote letters to the paper under the name “A Coloured Philadelphian.” Forten's favorite topics were prejudice, abolition, and the American Colonization Society (ACS).
The ACS was an organization composed only of white members that sought to send black Americans to Liberia, a colony 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. They wanted others to know that the ACS was not necessarily working in the best interest of black Americans. Though he disapproved of this movement, he also formed an organization called the Convention of Color with Bishop Richard Allen in 1817, which advocated for black migration to Canada rather than Liberia.
Forten’s entire family was equally politically active, especially in the realm of abolition. His wife and daughters were founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. His daughters were all activists for several different causes: Margaretta Forten was an avid abolitionist who dedicated her life to educating fellow African Americans, including those who sought freedom, and Harriet Purvis Forten organized boycotts and an Underground Railroad stop to support slaves seeking freedom, as well as supporting suffrage for both women and African American men.
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.