Image courtesy of The Historical Society of
Pennsylvania (HSP), Leon Gardiner collection
of American Negro Historical Society records
James Forten was born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was born a free black man. Over the course of his lifetime, he would make a significant impact upon the fortunes of the American capitalist system and the livelihood of his contemporaries.
His parents were Thomas and Sarah Forten. He was also the grandson of slaves. His formative years were spent in Philadelphia and he attended Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for colored children. By the time he turned eight years old, he began working for Robert Bridges’s sail loft. This is where his father worked as well. The following year his father was the victim of an unfortunate boating accident and died. This horrible tragedy resulted in nine-year-old James having to take on additional work to support his family.
Over time, James Forten became interested in politics and avidly campaigned for and supported the issues of temperance, women’s suffrage, and equal rights for African Americans. In the year 1800, he was the leader in organizing a petition that called for Congress to emancipate all slaves. Given the fact that this was a presidential election year, rumor had it that a few of the presidential candidates (among them Thomas Jefferson) were none to pleased with a Negro man advocating for the emancipation of slavery. His activism was further recognized when he wrote and published a pamphlet denouncing the Pennsylvania legislature for prohibiting the immigration of freed black slaves from other states.
During his early teens, he worked as a powder boy during the Revolutionary War on the Royal Lewis sailing ship. After being captured by the British army, he was released and returned home to resume his previous job. Pleased with his work and dedication, he was appointed to the foreman’s position in the loft by his boss. By1798 Bridges decided to retire, and wanted Forten to remain in charge of the loft. He was able to have his desires realized. Eventually James owned the business, and employed almost 40 workers.
In 1817 Forten joined with Richard Allen to form the Convention of Color. In the 19th century Allen was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Interestingly, the organization argued for the migration of free black slaves to Canada, but vehemently resisted any movement for a return to the African continent. Other prominent men who joined Forten and Allen were Williams Wells Brown, Samuel Eli Cornish, and Henry Highland Garnet.
James Forten died on March 4, 1842 after living an incredible life. His early years were devoted to providing for his widowed mother, his middle years towards acquiring a vast economic fortune and rectifying the brutal injustices that had been perpetrated upon his fellow African Americans, poor people, and women.
Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); http://www.blackinventor.com/pages/jamesforten.html; http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASforten.htm.
East Tennessee State University