James Forten (1766-1842)
James Forten was a wealthy business owner, abolitionist, community leader, and American patriot, born in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766. The son of Thomas Fortune (Forten), James was a “Free” born African American, and 4th generation inhabitant of Philadelphia, whose family had been in Philadelphia since his great-grandfather arrived enslaved during the 1680’s.
James’ father Thomas was a journeyman sail maker in the sail loft of Robert Bridges, a prominent Philadelphia business owner. At a young age James went to work with his father Thomas, and his father began teaching James his valuable trade; however, tragically Thomas died of illness around 1774, when James was only 7 years of age.
For 2 years James attended the Quakers African School, a small school set up to teach African American children, however because his father had died, his mother, like most colonial women when the bread winner-dies, had financial difficulties, so he was forced to go out into the working world.
In 1781 at the age of 14, James joined the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War, and served as an American Privateer. James served “as a powder boy on the Royal Louis, one of the largest and most heavily armed privateers to sail out the port of Philadelphia.” (Julie Wench)
While at sea, 2 British War ships captured the Royal Louis, and James and his comrades became prisoners of war on a prison-hulk. James was given the opportunity to join the British, but he refused, even though he risked the terrible fate of being enslaved and sent off to labor in the British West Indies for the rest of his life. Instead, James was imprisoned with the rest of the privateers on a prison hulk in New York harbor.
Young James Forten almost died while spending 7 months imprisoned by the British. A prison-hulk was a prison used by the British that sat afloat on the water, and the conditions on these floating prisons were terrible, with disease and death being an eminent threat.
When James was released, he was in a terrible condition, and had to walk from Trenton, NJ back to his home in Philadelphia.
After the war, James Forten and his brother-in-law went off to sea and James stayed in London for a year, returning to Philadelphia in 1785.
Back in Philadelphia, James became an apprentice to the same man who employed his father Thomas, and the same place James himself learned about sail-making, the sail-loft of Robert Bridges.
James Forten rose through the ranks, and eventually became the owner of the sail-loft in which he worked. As the owner of a thriving business, James began to employ other African Americans, and remarkably he owned a business that employed both white and black workers. James Forten grew to become one the richest “free” African Americans in the U.S., amassing a large fortune.
Like his father Thomas, as an investor James Forten also made loans to other business men of all ethnicities. “Those indebted to James Forten represented a cross-section of the business community- grocers, wine merchants, tavern keepers, blacksmiths, a proprietor of a livery stable, and one self-described ‘gentleman.’ [Philadelphia Court Records]” (Julie Winch).
As a business man, James took whatever actions prudent to collect his money; if necessary James went “to the District Court, to Common Pleas, and in one instance to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. If anyone thought they could cheat him because he was a man of color they soon learned their mistake. He hired good lawyers and invariably won his lawsuits.” (Julie Winch).
Now as a wealthy entrepreneur, James began to use his wealth to affect political change, and work not just to help his community, but the conditions of all African Americans living in the U.S.
James Forten supported and helped finance countless causes that aimed at making life better for African Americans, and he also financed several of the first independent institutions founded by African Americans.
In 1787, James Forten helped found the Free African Society, the first independent African American organization in the United States. James also helped found and finance the St. Thomas African Episcopal church, the first African American Episcopalian church, and served as a vestryman. In 1817 James Forten and Reverend Richard Allen worked together to establish the first Convention of Color.
Throughout his life, James Forten opposed slavery, and used his own home as a meeting place for the country’s leading abolitionist. He also used his position to help many abolitionist causes, and advised and advanced money to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In 1833, James Forten helped William Lloyd Garrison and Robert Purvis form the American Anti-Slavery Society; and James also contributed some articles to Garrison's abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.
James Forten was also dedicated to the equal rights of African Americans and spent his life as a leading supporter of this cause. 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; and he was a leader in the "Convention movement," which was started in the 1830s to improve the circumstances of African Americans
James Forten married Charlotte Vandine, a teacher, and together they had 7 children, all of whom became leaders in the abolitionist and equal rights movements of the 19th century.
After a remarkable life of accomplishment and service, James Forten died on March 4, 1842. His funeral procession was a major event in Philadelphia, and both African Americans and the city’s respected White citizens participated in paying respects to this great man.
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