Forten’s Grandfather Freed Himself from Enslavement by Escaping to Philadelphia
James Forten (Sept. 2, 1766 – March 4, 1842) was born free to Thomas and Margret Forten. It’s believed that Forten’s grandfather freed himself from enslavement by escaping and finding refuge in Philadelphia. He was educated in a Quaker school that was created by white abolitionist, Anthony Benezet, but he had to leave in order to work full time to support his family. At nine years-old he became the man of the house after his father died.
Forten Joined the Continental Navy at 14
At only 14 years-old, he joined the Continental Navy as a privateer on the Royal Louis. For two years, Forten worked and studied the art of sail making by becoming an apprentice under the ship’s captain. Unfortunately, the Royal Louis was captured by the English and Forten was a prisoner of war by the age of 15.
Forten Was a Prisoner of War
Forten was imprisoned on the British prison ship, the HMS Jersey, where living conditions were harsh and unbearable. There was no fresh air, living space, and it was extremely unsanitary because of prisoners’ waste. During the course of the war, the shipped held 11,000 prisoners and at least eight died a day. Remarkably, Forten was able to leave because he promised not to participate in the war after being freed. At 15, he had to walk from Brooklyn back to Philadelphia after surviving an on-water prison camp for seven months.
Forten Had One of the Most Successful Businesses in Philadelphia
By 1786, Forten was back in Philadelphia and he focused his time learning more about sail making from a family friend Robert Bridges. He would go on to buy Bridges’ sailing loft in 1798 and turn it into one of the most successful businesses in Philadelphia at that time. He hired Black and white workers, hoping to show that people of both races could coexist equally.
Forten Was an Activist
With his newfound wealth, he began fighting for the abolition of slavery and the equality of Black people in the United States. Forten started with attacking the slave trade directly. Many Black and white abolitionists created a petition demanding that the U.S government end this obscene practice immediately in 1801. However, the grievances of Forten and others fell on deaf ears and nothing came of it. So he focused his attention in Pennsylvania. Forten pressured the state legislature by creating a pamphlet called “Letters From A Man of Colour.” He wrote the letter in 1813, in response to a new bill that threatened to further disenfranchise free Black people.
Forten Was Ideologically Opposed to the American Colonization Society
Even though they believe slavery was an unjust, inhumane, and barbaric practice, many white abolitionist could not see Black people living with them. So the American Colonization Society was created in 1816, with plans to send Blacks out of the United States to Liberia. Forten brought together other Black leaders like Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Absalom Jones, and James Gloucester to host a meeting of 3,000 free Blacks in Philadelphia to vote for or against the ACS’s plan for expatriation in 1817. They all denounced the idea and said that America was just as much theirs as the white population’s.
Forten Funded The Liberator
In 1831, Forten funded William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator. Garrison had the idea to start the paper to uncover the truth about Liberia. Forten and Garrison felt that Liberia was not a good choice for free Blacks because the living conditions were deplorable and ACS was not looking out for the interest of Black people. Interestingly, Forten argued for the migration of free Blacks to Canada, but vehemently resisted any movement for a return to the African continent.
Forten Maintained Substantial Wealth and Influence in Philadelphia Until His Death
By the time of his death, Forten had managed to create substantial wealth and influence among Black and white Philadelphians. In many ways, he helped rectify the brutal injustices that had been perpetrated upon his fellow African-Americans, poor people and women.
Forten’s Legacy Lives On
Forten had nine children that continued his work. Some went into the sail making business but one of his daughters, Margaretta Forten, became an abolitionist and member of the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1845. His granddaughter, Charlotte Forten Grimké, became a famous antebellum poet and educator.
source: atlantablackstar.com by