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Forten, James (1766-1842)

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 made a significant impact upon the fortunes of the American capitalist system and the livelihood of his contemporaries.

Forten was the grandson of slaves. His parents were Thomas and Sarah Forten. His formative years were spent in Philadelphia and he attended Anthony Benezet’s Quaker Negro School in Philadelphia.  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 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 too pleased with a black man advocating for the emancipation of slaves.  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. 

In 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.  By 1798 Bridges decided to retire, and wanted Forten to remain in charge of the loft. Eventually Forten owned the business and employed almost 40 workers.

In 1817, Forten joined with Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, to form the Convention of Color. Interestingly, the organization argued for the migration of formerly enslaved blacks 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.


Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002);;


East Tennessee State University

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