William Deas Forten (1823-1900)

William Deas Forten was born in Philadelphia in 1823. William was the youngest son of James Forten, and also a sail-maker. He was named after one of his father’s friends and business associates, William Deas, of the firm Knox & Deas. Like the rest of his family, William Forten was an abolitionist.

William’s participation in the anti-slavery cause was deep. “William Forten emerged in the early 1850’s as one of the leading members of the newly revived Vigilance Committee. In the fall of 1851 he was appointed to a Special Vigilance Committee. The Fugitive Slave Law had Just been passed, and black Philadelphians wanted to make sure they were prepared to challenge it…With the wave of arrests that followed the killing of slave owner Edward Gorsuch by runaway slaves and their allies in the Christiana Riot, Forten and his colleagues sprang into action…The Christiana crisis marked William Forten’s emergence as a community leader.” (Winch, Julie, A Gentleman of Color, pg 367).

William and the groups he belonged to petitioned the government many times over the years. In 1855, representing the “Colored Citizens of Philadelphia,” William, his brother Robert, and several others petitioned the state legislature to grant citizenship to African Americans. In 1866, William and others petitioned Congress on behalf of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League for full citizen rights.

During the Civil War, William Forten along with other prominent Philadelphia African Americans rallied the black community to fight for the Union in the war, and he fervently corresponded with Republican Senator Charles Sumner during the war.

Immediately following the Civil War, he was a leader for African American voting rights, becoming “a major figure in the Equal Rights League…dedicated to the enfranchisement of African American men. Founded in Syracuse in 1864, it spread quickly. By 1866 there were fifty-one local branches in Pennsylvania alone. In August 1865, at the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League meeting in Harrisburg, Forten was elected to the advisory committee.” (Winch, Julie, A Gentleman of Color, pg 368).

While the 15th amendment was being drafted, he fought diligently against politicians who wanted to keep African American’s disenfranchised stating “We cannot have this thrust to endless days in our faces that we are a Race of Slaves-We want no reference of Race or Color, or… previous condition engrafted on the great National Charter…Let the Constitution of the U.S. contain nothing so…Antirepublican…There must be no Color known to Americans but the National one.”

William Forten was also a fervent Republican. He helped form the Union Central Republican Club in support of the Republican Party; and “Forten was one of the authors of a pamphlet distributed to black voters by the Republican Congressional Committee. Grant or Greeley-Which? consisted of excerpts from letters, speeches, and editorials ‘by colored men and their best friends,’ all trying to show that Grant was truly committed to racial equality.” (Winch, Julie, A Gentleman of Color, pg 368).

William Forten spent the majority of his life fighting for the rights of African Americans, and maintained an important role and position among his community, while gaining the respect of American society overall.

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