James Forten (1766-1842) was born free in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the grandson of a slave who had freed himself. After his father died, James Forten started working at age seven to help out his mother and sister, first as a chimney sweep and then as a grocery-store clerk. He also attended the African School, run by Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet. By age nine, Forten left school to work full-time. During the Revolutionary War, Forten served on the Royal Louis. The ship was captured by British forces and he was at risk of being enslaved. Captain John Beazley, who had taken the privateer, was impressed with Forten and secured his being treated as a regular prisoner of war.
Forten was fortunate to survive the prison conditions in England where thousands of prisoners died. After 7 months he was released on parole and his promise not to fight in the war. He was returned to Brooklyn and walked to Philadelphia to return to his mother and sister and later signed up on a merchant ship that sailed to England. He lived and worked for more than a year in a London shipyard.
When Forten returned to Philadelphia in 1786, he became apprenticed to sail-maker Robert Bridges, his father’s former employer and a family friend. He learned quickly in the sail loft, ultimately purchasing the business in 1798. By 1810 his was one of the most successful sail-making businesses in Philadelphia, employing black and white workers, and Forten one of its wealthiest citizens. Having become well established, Forten devoted both time and money to working for the national abolition of slavery and gaining civil rights for blacks. He wrote pamphlets and publicly denounced bills that mistreated free blacks. As the resettlement movement grew, Forten supported the idea of establishing black-governed nations like Liberia and Haiti. However, he also felt that many American blacks should have equal rights to property in the US as they had been here for generations. He consistently said that it was far better for them to fight for an egalitarian US society rather than to flee the country.
Forten financially backed William Lloyd Garrison in starting up start up his newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831, in which he frequently published letters signed as “A Colored Man of Philadelphia.” According to his biographer Julie Winch, Forten was “one of the most powerful African-American voices, for many thousands more throughout the North. He knew how to use the press and the speaker’s podium. He knew about building alliances, when to back down and when to press forwards with his agenda.”
He died at the age of 75 in Philadelphia. Thousands of people, both black and white, attended his funeral. His children and grandchildren remained active in the abolitionist movement as leaders, activists and educators. His granddaughter, Charlotte Forten Grimké became a poet, diarist and educator. Her diary from teaching freedmen and their children in the South after the Civil War was republished in scholarly editions in the 1980s.
For today, reflect on these words of Forten: “It seems almost incredible that the advocates of liberty should conceive of the idea of selling a fellow creature to slavery.”