Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from F-J

Forten, James

american philadelphia white sail

The abolitionist and civil rights advocate James Forten was born in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766, to Thomas and Margaret Forten. James Forten was born free. His father, Thomas Forten, was born also free. James Forten’s grandfather was born into slavery and gained his freedom. James Forten’s great-grandfather was born in Africa, enslaved, brought to Pennsylvania, and he lived the rest of his life as a slave. Almost nothing is known about his mother. Thomas Forten was a journeyman sail maker in the sail loft of a white craftsman, Robert Bridges. As a child, James learned the rudiments of the sail maker’s trade, and he also spent two years at the Quaker-sponsored African School.

The Fortens remained in Philadelphia during the American War for Independence. In 1781 a mix of patriotic fervor and the need for money induced James Forten to join the crew of an American privateer. His ship was captured on its second cruise and he was taken prisoner. While being held on board a British warship, he was assigned to watch over the captain’s son. The two youths became friends, and the captain offered to take Forten to England and educate him with his son. Attractive though the offer was, Forten rejected it, insisting he could not desert the cause of independence. He was sent with the rest of the American captives to a British prison ship in New York harbor. After a harrowing seven months of incarceration he was released and returned to Philadelphia. Fighting and suffering alongside white men in the same cause shaped Forten’s views about American society. In later years he alluded repeatedly to what he saw as the Revolution’s promise of equality without regard to race.

After the war ended, Forten shipped out aboard an American merchant ship bound for London. Once there, he requested to be paid off, and he remained in the British capital for a year, most likely working in a sail loft. When he returned home he was offered an apprenticeship by Robert Bridges. The relationship between Bridges, a white slave-owner, and Forten, a free man of color, proved mutually beneficial. Bridges recognized Forten’s ability and promoted him to foreman, a position in which he oversaw a largely white workforce. In return, Bridges gained a conscientious junior partner who helped him expand his business. In 1798 Bridges retired and Forten took over the sail loft.

Race relations in Philadelphia at this time were not as tense as they would later become, and the quality of Forten’s work induced many white ship-owners to hire him. He proved a resourceful businessman, investing the profits from his sail-loft in real estate and bank and canal stock. As an employer he insisted on maintaining a racially integrated workforce, and his sail-loft, one of the largest in Philadelphia, was renowned for its harmony and good order.

By the time he was in his early thirties, James Forten had emerged as a vocal champion of African-American rights. In 1799 some seventy black Philadelphians petitioned Congress for action to prevent the kidnapping of free people of color. Congress refused even to consider their petition, however. In his widely reprinted letter of thanks to the lone congressman who had supported the petition, Forten spoke of his fear that the nation was violating its founding principles. He developed this theme in Letters from a Man of Colour . Written in 1813 in response to moves in the Pennsylvania Senate to curtail the rights of black citizens, Forten’s pamphlet eloquently expressed his belief that all Americans were entitled to equal treatment under the law.

The issue that brought Forten to national prominence was African colonization. He was initially optimistic about prospects in Sierra Leone, believing Britain’s West African colony would help stimulate trade in commodities other than human beings, as well as offer a refuge to emancipated slaves from the United States and the Caribbean. He welcomed the formation of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816 and endorsed the idea of an American colony for former slaves in Africa. Others in his community voiced their fear that the ACS’s real aim was to deport free blacks. In a matter of months Forten swung from support to outright opposition. The founding of Liberia, the sufferings of the colonists, and the statements of some ACS leaders that their goal was most definitely not to abolish slavery convinced him that the organization was fundamentally proslavery. When prominent ACS members told him it was his duty to lead an exodus of free blacks to Africa, it only intensified his hostility.

Although freeborn, James Forten was a tireless opponent of slavery. He worked in the African-American community to aid the hundreds of fugitives who flocked to Philadelphia each year, and he collaborated with white abolitionists. In 1830, when he was contemplating founding an antislavery newspaper, the white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison contacted Forten, who responded with money and advice. Garrison’s paper, the Liberator , gave Forten the chance to reach a wider audience than he could with his speeches and letters, and in his writings for the paper he spoke of the perniciousness of slavery and the evils of racial oppression.

During the last decade of his life, James Forten confronted many challenges. Philadelphia was rocked by repeated outbreaks of racial violence. In an 1834 riot, one of his sons was attacked, and he himself received death threats. He also witnessed a concerted effort to erode the rights of black people. In 1838, Pennsylvania voters ratified a new constitution that disfranchised African Americans. In the face of so much hostility, Forten helped found a new organization, the American Moral Reform Society. The goal of its members was to work for a sweeping restructuring of American society. They rejected racial distinctions and pledged to address the needs of the entire nation. Its critics, however, condemned the AMRS as hopelessly impractical, reasoning that black people were in greater need of aid than the population as a whole. Forten’s reply was that all racial divisions were indefensible.

In 1841 deteriorating health forced Forten to relinquish control of his business to his two eldest sons. Even when he became too weak to speak in public, he continued to write in support of the causes he championed. He died on March 4, 1842, at the age of seventy-five. Despite the tense racial climate in Philadelphia, some five thousand citizens, black and white, lined the route of his funeral procession to pay tribute to him.

Fortune, Timothy Thomas [next]

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or