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James Forten

James Forten


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James Forten was born in Philadelphia in 1766. Apprenticed as a sailmaker he became a foreman in 1786 and by 1798 he owned his own company in 1798. A successful businessman he amassed a fortune of over $100,000.

Forten took an active interest in politics and campaigned for temperance, women's suffrage and equal rights for African-Americans. In 1800 he organised a petition calling for Congress to emancipate all slaves. He also wrote and published a pamphlet attacking the Pennsylvania legislature for prohibiting the immigration of freed black slaves from other states.

In 1817 Forden joined with Richard Allen to form the Convention of Color. The organization argued for the settlement of escaped black slaves in Canada but was strongly opposed to any plans for repatriation to Africa. Other leading figures that became involved in the movement was William Wells Brown, Samuel Eli Cornish and Henry Highland Garnet.

In 1833 Forten helped to form the American Anti-Slavery Society. A close friend of William Lloyd Garrison, Forten contributed to his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator. James Forten died on 24th February, 1842.

The misery which the slaves endure in consequence of too close a stowage is not easy to describe. I have heard them frequently complaining of heat, and have seen them fainting, almost dying for want of water. Their situation is worse in rainy weather. We do everything for them in our power. In all the vessels in which I have sailed in the slave trade, we never covered the gratings with a tarpawling, but made a tarpawling awning over the booms, but some were still panting for breath.


James Forten

James Forten was born in 1766 as a free Black man in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over the course of his lifetime, he would make an impact upon the fortunes of industries and the lives of his fellow man.

Forten was the son of Thomas and Sarah Forten and the grandson of slaves. He was raised in Philadelphia and educated in Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for colored children. At age eight, James began working for Robert Bridges sail loft, and worked alongside his father. A year later his father died in a boating accident and James was forced to take on additional work to provide for his family.

When he turned 14 he worked as a powder boy during the Revolutionary War on the Royal Lewis sailing ship. After being captured by the British, he was released and returned home to again begin working in Mr. Bridges loft. Pleased with his work and ambition, Mr. Bridges eventually appointed him to the foreman’s position in the loft. In 1798 Bridges decided to retire and wanted Forten to remain in charge of the loft. He loaned enough money to Forten to purchase the loft and soon James owned the business, employing 38 people.

Around this time, Forten began experimenting with different types of sails for ships and finally invented one that he found was better suited for maneuvering and maintaining greater speeds. Although he did not patent the sail, he was able to benefit financially, as his sailing loft became one of the most successful and prosperous ones in Philadelphia.

The fortune he soon made was enormous for any man, Black or White. Forten spent his money and lived a luxurious life, but he also made good use of his resources on people other than his self. More than half of his considerable fortune was devoted towards abolitionist causes. He often purchased slaves freedom, helped to finance and bring in funding for William Garrison’s newspaper, the Libertarian, opened his home on Lombard Street as an Underground Railroad depot and opened a school for Black children.

James Forten died in 1842 after living an incredible life. His early years were devoted to providing for his mother, his middle years towards building his fortune and supporting his family and his later years to uplifting his fellow man. He was not only a great inventor, but an even greater man.


James Forten - One of America's Founding Fathers

James Forten was a Founding Father of the United States of America. Born as a free African American in Philadelphia, Forten was educated in one of the city’s Quaker schools, and he began working with his father as a sailmaker at the age of just eight. After Forten’s father died in a boating accident, Forten became the primary provider for his mother and sister at the age of nine, and he was forced to leave school to find additional employment.

Revolutionary War

Forten grew up in a time of great political upheaval in America since the Revolutionary War broke out when Forten was just eight years of age. When he turned nine, Forten heard The Declaration of Independence read aloud for the first time behind Independence Hall. At age eleven, Forten watched as the British took over the Capital City of Philadelphia.

At just fourteen years old, Forten volunteered to serve as a “powder boy” on the Royal Louis under Captain Stephen Decatur, Sr., a privateer supporting the United States during the Revolutionary War. As a powder boy, Forten carried gun powder from the ship’s powder magazine to the ship’s cannons. While serving, Forten’s ship was captured by the British, and he was at risk of being sold into slavery. Instead, Forten was transported to the HMS Jersey where Forten became a prisoner of war. The conditions aboard the ship were terrible and thousands of Americans died aboard British prisoner ships during the Revolutionary War.
Forten was released in a prisoner exchange in 1782, but he remained in England, working in London shipyards before he was able to secure voyage home to Philadelphia.

Financial Success and Activism

Back in Philadelphia, Forten resumed his work as a sailmaker. The owner of the sail loft, Robert Bridges, decided to put Forten in charge of the operation when he retired, and by the time Forten was 35, he had purchased the business from Bridges. Forten developed new types of sails and sail tools that allowed ships to maneuver better and maintain higher speeds. These innovations brought Forten’s business great success, and Forten became the premier sailmaker in Philadelphia. Forten employed dozens of people, both black and white, at his sail loft, and he enjoyed tremendous financial success.

Forten used his newly earned wealth and power to fund charities serving African Americans and to advocate strongly for the abolition of slavery as well as the civil rights for African Americans. In 1800, before Congress departed Philadelphia for Washington, D.C., Forten organized a petition advocating for Congress to abolish slavery in America. Forten also became an outspoken critic of Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Emancipation Act. Although Pennsylvania passed the first emancipation act in the United States, it was so gradual and incremental that there were still some slaves held in Pennsylvania when the Civil War started 80 years later. Forten pushed for an immediate abolishment of slavery in Pennsylvania, and he called for Pennsylvania to end a prohibition of the immigration of freed slaves from other states.

When the American Colonization Society was formed to try and send free African Americans back to Africa, Forten became a national leader against the movement. In an 1817 meeting with Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and other prominent African Americans, Forten denounced the American Colonization Society and affirmed the rights of African Americans to live free in America. Forten also used his considerable wealth to help fund an abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, which he also contributed to as a writer.

Forten fought for American Independence, but once it was secured Forten was among those not included in the vision laid out by the framers of the United States Constitution. Forten therefore had to fight again, this time outside of the system, for the rights of African Americans and to carve out a space in American society that was not provided to them. At the time of his death in 1842, Forten was among the most influential African Americans in the country and his funeral was attended by thousands.

Forten is interred in Eden Cemetery, a historic African American cemetery located just outside of Philadelphia, where many of the most prominent African American Philadelphians are buried.

James Forten in Philadelphia

Forten lived in Philadelphia for most of his life and operated his successful sail loft in Philadelphia just below Pine Street along the Delaware River. Forten lived near Independence Hall and heard The Declaration of Independence read aloud there for the first time when he was a boy. Forten attended Church at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church which was run by fellow abolitionist Richard Allan.

Today you can learn more about James Forten at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the first museum in America dedicated to African American history. There is also some information on Forten and Philadelphia's free African American community at the site of the President's House in Philadelphia. Independence Hall and the President's House are both stops on The Constitutional Walking Tour!


James Forten - History

As a child and young man, James was part of the British colonies that rebelled against rule from the throne. As an adult, he made his fortune in sail making, and turned his influence to the causes of abolition and civil rights.

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James Forten

As a child and young man, James was part of the British colonies that rebelled against rule from the throne. As an adult, he made his fortune in sail making, and turned his influence to the causes of abolition and civil rights.
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Are you ready? Mysteries, the hit fiction podcast team and. Yes, reaches this thrilling final season. Just coming after my dear child team, and by season four, no one is allowed up here. I have all the listen and follow team and be on the radio, our Apple podcast, or wherever you listen to podcasts, take me to to Monday. But now we wait till Monday.

Hi, this is Hillary Clinton, host of the new podcast, You and me both. There's a lot to be anxious and worried about right now, and it's made so much worse by the fact that we can't be together. So I find myself on the phone a lot, talking with friends, experts, really anyone who can help make some sense of these challenging times. These conversations have been a lifeline for me.

And now I hope they will be for you to please listen to you and me both on the I Heart radio app, Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Welcome to stuff you missed in History Class, A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast, I'm Holly Fry, and I'm Tracy B. Wilson. And when I started researching today's topic, I was several days in and I kept second guessing myself because it seemed absolutely impossible that we had not already covered this person.

I've had the same phenomenon happen to me.

Yeah, we're talking about James Forten today, and he's one of those figures that has really emerged as an icon in the abolitionist movement. He's someone people love to write about as a child and a young man. He was part of the British colonies as they were rebelling against a rule from the throne. And he both saw and participated in the Revolutionary War that led to the U.S. gaining independence. And as an adult, he turned his influence to the causes of abolition and civil rights.

And it was one of those things where I kept going and I was working and I was several thousand pages into writing and I ping Tracy, which we didn't do this already did because how could we not have.

Yeah, well, and and his name may sound familiar because of previous namedrop which will get to you and. Yeah, but yeah, I did the same thing where I was like did, did, did we that know I fully expect to find some weird hidden thing that for some reason we couldn't find in any of our indexes or archive lists. I want to be like, oh yeah, totally previous hosted did this. I'll be like, how did I never find it?

When you've been writing podcasts for seven years, it's easy to not remember anymore what you've done. Yeah, I don't.

I always feel bad when we do a live show, which I miss desperately. That is truly one of the things I am missing the most during this pandemic, that people will ask a question about something that one of us has researched like two years prior, or sometimes even less than that.

And I'll be like, I don't remember any of this. I'm so sorry. Yeah, sometimes I don't even remember that we did that episode. Oh, yeah. There are times we've both experienced where we go through the archives or we're talking about something and we don't remember ever doing it. And like one of us will be like, I don't remember ever doing this. And you wrote it, but it happens. It's a lot. Again, if you're doing a research paper essentially every single week for seven years.

Yeah. You can't retain all of it. Know your brain gets a little crowded. So today's subject here, we're pretty sure we haven't done an episode on previously is James Wharton. He was born on September 2nd, 1766, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And sometimes you'll find his family's name listed as Fortune if you and E rather than Forten.

And James was part of the fourth generation of his family to live in North America. The Fortin's had been in Pennsylvania for three of those generations. His grandfather had been from West Africa and was taken to Philadelphia as an enslaved man in the 80s.

Although we do not know a whole lot more than that about him, we do not even know his name. That great grandfather had a child with an enslaved woman. That was James Wharton's grandfather. And although there's no clear information on exactly how it happened, Fortin's grandfather was able to secure his own freedom. That is according to James's accounts. Yeah, there's no record of that. We don't know what kind of manumission or freedom happened, just that it was something James told everybody.

Yes, my grandfather gained his own freedom.

Fortin's parents are a little bit mysterious as well in terms of the details of their life. His father, who is sometimes referred to as Thomas Fortuyn, was, according to James, born a free man. Thomas was educated enough to read and write. He was a sail maker by trade that will come up again, and he worked for a man named Robert Bridges. Bridges was born to Irish parents in the colonies, and over time he became quite wealthy in his business.

And so he both employed free black craftsmen. At least we know of Thomas. And then later on we'll talk about his relationship with James. But he also had enslaved black people working in his sail loft as well.

We also don't have a lot of information on James's mother, Margaret. It's believed that she was in her mid 40s when James was born. And we don't know anything else about her. We don't know whether she was ever enslaved. No biography there. Yeah, the background is not there. It's interesting because she lived for quite a while and lived with James. But it was all of her story is pretty much focused on on James's story. And so we don't know what her personal life was like before she became a wife and mother.

But as a child, James sometimes accompanied his father when he went to Bridges's shop to work in the sale loft. And James would have been given assorted tasks. They like sweeping and sometimes sorting scraps for potential recycling, like to see if they were big enough to use for a patch. He also may have prepared beeswax for the steelmakers makers to run their sewing thread through. But eventually young James did learn to sew sales. And the idea in all of this was that James was going to be completely.

Prepared to support himself through a stable and lucrative trade. This was all very deliberately done by his father, Thomas, thinking about his family's financial stability also went way beyond teaching James a trade. Thomas also took small commissions for himself. And when we say small women jobs that involved sales literally small enough that he could work on them at home without the benefit of a large loft space to lay out all of the cuts of canvas he would need. And then Thomas used the money that he earned through his sidewalk to set up a lending business so that he could be paid back with interest when he loaned money to clients.

Then he could further grow his holdings that way. In late 1773 or early 1774, when James was still just seven, his father died. The details of the illness that led to this death are unknown. But Margaret then left to figure out how to provide for her children. James and his younger sister, Abigail, reached out to her husband's acquaintances and business associates to try to pull together a plan to get James educated and to keep food on the table from 1773 to 1775.

James attended a Quaker school, the Friends African School. But then when James was just nine, the school ran into an array of problems. There was financial issues and the failing health of the school's teacher, so it had to close. Often it kept up kind of a sputtering schedule. Meanwhile, the family needed James to work to help support them, and his time in school ended because of that. James continued to be a voracious reader long after his formal schooling with the friends ended, though.

Yeah, that was a kid that loved books and Margaret was working. She was doing like taking in mending and and stuff, but like to support the three of them and pay their rent. It was just not enough. So James started working for a shopkeeper and because he was still just a boy at this point, remember, he's like nine. This work was kind of like cleaning the store, stocking the shelves. It's been theorized that he probably served as an occasional clerk.

And of course, all of this upheaval in James's personal life was happening as the colonies were going through their own upheaval, that James was a boy in Philadelphia as the Revolutionary War was brewing.

He was still just nine when he heard the Declaration of Independence being read publicly for the first time on July eight, 1776, when the British marched into Philadelphia and took possession of the city on September 26, 1777. James witnessed that as well. Yeah, there has been. I saw an interesting discussion of this in in one of the pieces I was reading about why his wife, some families, particularly black families, did not leave. And and there's this story and it's like they didn't have anywhere to go.

A lot of people just did not have the means, both black and white, to leave the city when they knew that this occupation was going to happen. So they kind of just hunkered down and waited it out. But after the British moved out of the city, Philadelphia became a rallying spot for privateers. And this meant that the shipyards once again became very busy, as investors said, about outfitting existing ships for privateering or commissioning new ships to be built specifically for that purpose.

And because of the ongoing war which had deeply impacted the import of goods from Europe. This was also a time that inflation was a very intense problem. So James and his family would have needed all of the money they could get just to make ends meet as he reached his teen years and was able to take on more demanding work.

James joined the crew of a privateering vessel. This was the Royal Louis. He was 14 at the time because he knew about sail construction and repair. He was really an asset for the Lui's captain, which was Stephen Decatur James's mother. Margaret wasn't exactly enthusiastic about this move, but she did consent to it. The plan was that the Royal Louis, which left Philadelphia with a crew of 200 men, would take other ships and then deploy members of the crew to sail those ships.

James was one of 20 black crew members, and at this point the British held both New York and Charleston.

And Decatur had been commissioned to cruise along the coast between the two cities in search of British vessels. The Royal Louis took four other ships with very little resistance, although the times that there were firefights definitely left an impression on forten. There is some discrepancy in Fortin's memories, as relayed to a family friend later in life versus historical record regarding which ship put up a fight. But the primary takeaway was that James saw both shipmates and the crew of the other ship killed, although he himself was uninjured.

This first voyage was both lucrative for forten and gave him a sense of pride at having helped the colonies in their fight against British rule. Louis had intercepted British vessels that were carrying military dispatches, and so that disrupted the flow of information that was vital to British planning. James once again set out as a member of the Royal Louis crew in October of 1781, is the siege of Yorktown was underway, but this time the Royal Louis was captured by the British ship Amphion.

That happened almost immediately after they left port and James became a prisoner. He was naturally worried, recounting later that his mind was, quote, harassed with the most painful forebodings from a knowledge that rarely were prisoners of his complexion exchanged. They were sent to the West Indies and they're doomed to a life of slavery.

But that did not happen. Instead, James Forten was assigned by the captain of the AMPHION, which was John basely. He was assigned to be a companion to the captain's 12 year old son, Henry. This may have started out essentially as a babysitting assignment for a kid who is at sea for the first time. But according to Fortin's account, he and Henry became real friends, and Captain Baisley started to treat him more and more as his child's friend and less like a prisoner.

Yeah, there was one particular incident that's recounted where the two boys were playing marbles and James made this particularly amazing move. And so Henry was like, everybody, come look at this. It's amazing. And later, he would kind of just that being good at marbles had saved his life. But James Forten did end up on a prison ship for a while, though. And we're going to pause here for a sponsor break before we get into that part of his story.

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They on Saturday night make it up as we go only on the Iraq Podcast Network in association with audio of media created by Scarlett Burke and Jared Goosestep. So when the Amphion regrouped with a British prison ship captain, Baisley actually gave James Horton the opportunity to instead travel to England with his son, Henry James turned down the offer by saying that he had, quote, been taken prisoner for the liberties of my country and never will prove a traitor to her interest.

He was then listed on the prison ship Jersey as prisoner number 41 02, carrying with him a letter from Captain Baisley to the captain of the jersey asking that James, quote, not be forgotten on the list of exchanges.

While aboard the jersey, James made a deal with a Continental Navy officer. At one point, that officer was to be exchanged for a British officer and the deal was so James could hide in the man's chest and be exchanged along with them. But when the moment actually came, James gave his spot away to a boy who was two years younger than he was. That was Daniel Bruthen. And Daniel made it to safety and would become James Burton's friend for life.

This was a huge sacrifice. Aside from the fact that there were horrible sanitary conditions on the prison ship, one thing I read said something like eight men died every single day just from the overcrowding and the bad hygiene. The British didn't even consider privateers as continental prisoners. They didn't recognize the letters of Mark that had established those privateering ships as working for the Continental Congress. And so that made James and his fellow crew members pirates in the eyes of their captors.

And so James was in a really precarious situation simultaneously. Even on the continental military side, privateers were not valued the same way. They were not considered equal exchanges for redcoats. Despite all of the odds against him, James survived long enough for his name to make its way up the exchange list. And after seven months as a captive, he was released. He was dropped in New York and walked to Trenton barefoot before getting food and assistance. When he made it back to Philadelphia, he was not in good health.

He was thin and malnourished to the point that a lot of his hair had fallen out. But to his mother and sister, who really thought he had died at sea, his reappearance probably seemed like a miracle. And also at this point, he was still just a teenager.

Yeah, I don't even know if he had turned 15 yet at this time.

This all happened in a very short period of time. But a year later, the war was over and James was physically recovered and he was working probably in the same loft of Robert Bridges again to keep the family housed and fed. During this time, James's sister, Abigail, married a sailor named William Dunbar, who left almost immediately after the wedding to sail to London aboard a ship called the Commerce, which was run by a merchant named Thomas Truxton.

And James went with him. When James Forten arrived in London, he was seventeen. William Dunbar went back to Philadelphia aboard the Commerce as soon as the cargo was unloaded and the new cargo brought on. But James, knowing that he now had a brother in law who could help look after the family, decided to stay in England for a while. As a young man who was able to make and repair sails, he could easily pick up work along the docks and in the shipyards of London.

For James, this was definitely not an instance of a young man who was looking to sow his wild oats or enjoy some unrestrained party time. He is often described as pious. He never drank and was really quite disdainful of alcohol. He would say later in his life that he had never had a drop, and he seems to have spent his free time kind of walking around the city observing the social and political norms of life in London at the time, particularly in regard to race.

Well, he was less likely to stand out in the city because of the color of his skin. James certainly witnessed the racism involved in a city where a black loyalist refugees from the war were being referred to as an infestation. This was also when the idea had started to take hold of a colony in Sierra Leone where the British government could ship unwanted black refugees. We will come back to this later.

But the truth is, we actually don't really know what James Forten thought or saw when he was in London. Specifically, it is unclear whether he had always intended that this would be a temporary visit or if he had actually at some point thought he might relocate there and then later changed his mind. For some reason, there is no real record even of what ship he sailed back to Philadelphia on. There has been speculation that he once again met up with the commerce and took it back because it was making regular runs back and forth.

But we do not know for certain. All we know is that he did return home to Philadelphia in 1785. Once he was in Pennsylvania again, his next line of work wasn't on the water. He officially became a sail maker's apprentice under Robert Bridges. Bridges was a lot more than a boss to James. He was a mentor, perhaps even a father figure, although a lot of the specifics of their relationship are pretty. Live, it appears, based on records that Forten lived with bridges for a while, which was not unusual for an apprentice, and that means that he would have been a free black man in a home where enslaved people made up the household staff.

Yeah, this also gets into the discussion that I, I didn't really delve into here of like the indenture of an apprentice. And there is some discussion there to be made about whether or not you're still a free person. At that point. Certainly indentures were not in trade, learning crafts exclusive to black people at this point. But it's just another kind of nuance to consider in all of this. And we have also talked on the show before about the inherent conflict of stories like this, a person, specifically a black person that participates or lives in a system that enslaves other black people.

Fortin's family had its own complicated history with slavery, although the Fortin's or fortunes, depending on which historical record you're reading and which one any given individual in that family favored. Although they were black, James had an aunt who purchased enslaved people. This was not exactly uncommon in Philadelphia and other cities. Enslaved Labor was so much a part of the cultural and economic norms at the time that almost anyone with any kind of financial stability or wealth was probably involved in enslavement.

Back to the relationship between Robert Bridges and James Forten. Bridges even purchased a house in James Horton's name, and he trained Forten to become an expert designer and sailmaker. This was all pretty unusual for a number of reasons other than the ones that we've just mentioned. First, forten was the only free black person working in the sale loft. Other black men worked there, but they were all enslaved. Additionally, Robert Bridges and his wife Jemima had children of their own.

And if things had progressed in the usual way, one of the Bridges sons would have been the one taking over the family business. But that did not happen. In 1786, Bridges promoted James Forten to Foreman, and then he was made junior partner.

And in part, this was because Robert Bridges, who had done very well for himself over the years, he had made additional money in privateering by purchasing privateering ships, even though he himself did not ever sail on them. He was kind of angling for his sons to become merchants and not tradesmen. He wanted to push them up the socioeconomic ladder. And so in wishing to advance the position of his children, Robert had created a space where James was the one that was on a path to take over the business one day.

But to be clear, James was a hard worker. He was very good at what he did. The time he spent on the sea informed his work with practical knowledge and experience that even Robert Bridges didn't have. And as he took on greater and greater responsibility, the law's clients recognised that James Wharton knew what he was talking about. Although some accounts of his life include mentioned that he patented Assael management system, there are no records to indicate that that was actually the case.

But he was undisputably like the sail expert because he understood, like what it even meant to, like, lift a sail, which a lot of sail makers didn't really know from personal experience, like they would hire in sailors sometimes to do extra sewing who were like on land for a little while.

But there were people designing these sales who had really been at sea very often at all. And so James was like miles ahead of everyone in terms of experience.

Knowledge is the 18th century was coming to a close. James reached a new transition point in his life. In seventeen ninety eight, Robert Bridges retired and Forten took over the sail making company with the help of Robert Bridges. He had become both a homeowner and a business owner, both of which were very unusual for black residents of Philadelphia in the late 1980s.

This transition was pretty simple in terms of property, but the workforce was a little different while the apprentices stayed. Trusting that James Wharton could train them. The men who had finished their apprenticeships weren't really as willing to stay under this new ownership. While they had been answering to James for quite some time as their supervisor, they had some concerns that as a business owner, a black man would automatically lose clients because of prejudice. There was a concern about financial stability as well.

James was the only black person in Philadelphia at the time who owned a business the size of the sail loft, and none of the employees knew what was going to happen. Allegedly, Robert Bridges smooths things out, although whether that was through a financial guarantee or just by reiterating that good reputation that James Wharton had with all the other captains, the ship owners in town, like, that's really unclear. Yeah. We don't know if he kind of made like a cash reserve and said, like, look, guys, you're going to get paid.

This reserve is here in case anything goes wrong.

Or if he just was like, are are you fools? Every captain knows that this is a. Person, you go to you, they're not going to go somewhere else because you're not going to get the same level of service and Bridges was, by the way. Absolutely right. Thomas Willing, a banker and one of the city's wealthiest men, really kind of became one of Fortin's first, really like consistent champions and patrons in this regard. He regularly patronized the loft and Fortney eventually named one of his sons after the businessman.

His third son was named Thomas Willing. Francis Forten Bridges died two years after the business changed hands, so he did not get to enjoy his retirement very long. But if anyone had been worried about James Forten continuing the firm's prosperity without his mentor kind of standing by in the wings, they really did not need to have been concerned. James Forten and Sons, as it eventually came to be known, continued to have success and to be a well respected business with a dedicated clientele.

And this was all the case. We should point out, while the country's economic situation was not all that stable up to this point in his life, James had been taking care of his mother and sister.

But he also wanted a family of his own. And we'll talk about that after we have a little sponsor break. Five years after acquiring the sale making business, James met a young woman named Martha Baity who went by Patti and not a whole lot is known about her life before she and James married on November 10th of 1883. But unfortunately, their newlywed bliss lasted less than a year before Martha died. Seven months later, she became ill and passed, and the cause of her death is unknown.

James did not really ever want to talk about her very much at all for the rest of his life. So we don't really know much about their relationship or like I said, her. What caused her passing? Not long after Patti died, his sister Abigail also lost her husband. So from that point on, James took care of Abigail and her children for the rest of their lives, fought and got married again, this time on December 10th, 1895.

His bride was Charlotte Bandini, who was 20 at that time. There was another death in the family in May of the following year. James's mother, Margaret, died at the age of 84 when James and Charlotte welcomed their first child in September of 1886. They named her Marguerita in honor of the deceased matriarch of the family. James and Charlotte had nine children total. There was Charlotte who died in childhood, Harriet James Jr., Robert Bridges, Sarah Louisa, Mary Isabella, Thomas Willing and William.

Yeah, many of those names you will recognize because he often would name people after patrons, mentors, people who were important to him and his family.

Fortin's business model, as he ran the sell off in support of his growing family, was really progressive. He hired both black and white employees to work in his loft, and there was no separation along race lines, and his business flourished for the first nine years. So much so that he was sometimes referenced in the press and in travelogues. Is this example of black prosperity in Philadelphia, which of course ignores the fact that, like, he was a complete outlier, they kind of used him like, no, you could have their dreams fulfilled.

And it's like, well, yes, but one dream, like there were a lot of people not given the sort of lucky breaks that he had had then the Embargo Act of 1887 really meant that trade came to a standstill. So ship sales were not in demand anymore. Things picked back up in 1810 when the foreign trade restrictions were lifted. And then the War of 1812 once again put everything into a really perilous state, particularly during a blockade of the Delaware River.

Though trade continued through Philadelphia as supplies are moving inland, a lot of business owners just didn't make it through with their livelihoods intact. James was, as one biographer put it, luckier or perhaps more prudent than many. He did experience some losses during all of this economic upheaval, but he was really careful with his business and he stayed financially stable and he was able to expand his fortunes once all of that instability had kind of settled down a little bit. He also weathered a real estate bubble in the city and a panic in 1819.

And like his father, he put his money to work by lending and he also made real estate investments.

Over the years of working on the waterfront, Forten rescued a dozen people from drowning in 1821. He was recognized for having saved so many with a certificate of heroism from the Humane Society of Philadelphia. The certificate remained one of his most prized possessions for the rest of his life. He framed it and displayed it in the sitting room of his home.

Yeah, there are varying accounts of whether the number was actually twelve or not. Some go as low as four and some are like it could have been even more. This is a port city where people were always falling in the water.

Usually twelve is where the the consensus lands. As Philadelphia was struggling to find its footing as it was surpassed as a port city by New York, James and his sons had to work really, really hard to keep the business going. And it was not easy. But they managed to continue to be respected and seen as a great success. Visitors would come to the same loft to marvel at forten success and his integrated workforce, which was often touted as being about 50 50 black and white, was written about in the antislavery record in 1834.

Of course, in spite of all the press and interest from the general public, many of whom openly praised Fortin's business, the Journeyman Sailmaker Benevolent Society of Philadelphia only had white members. In 1838, Philadelphia's Trade Register showed nineteen black steelmakers in the city. All but one was working at James Forten and Sons, and three were James and his sons, James Jr. and Robert. Though he was running a very successful business, you would think very busy with all those children.

James Forten still made time to participate in church and community efforts, as well as a member of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. James put his. Business acumen to work, and he spearheaded fundraising efforts to help black men and women in Philadelphia get educations. He also advised both the church itself and other members of the church in business affairs and he would help them when they needed assistance with legal matters as well.

But even more than that, he emerged as a leader in the abolition movement and a champion of civil rights for black citizens. He had been connected from a very early age to people in Philadelphia who were abolitionist. Anthony Benzi, who was a well-known abolitionist and educator, had known James's father and had helped James's mother. Margaret arranged for James to attend the Friends African School as a boy. Benazir was one of the founders of the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes, unlawfully held in bondage, which evolved into the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

Pennsylvania had passed the Gradual Abolition Act in March of 1780, when James was still 13. And though this is widely touted as a big step in abolition history and it was the first of many such steps that were pushed for by abolitionists. It also meant that James, at a very impressionable age, saw firsthand how legislators were trying to appease enslavers with this law by grandfathering in their right to continue to keep people as property so long as they registered them each year.

And even as freedom was afforded to more and more black residents, it didn't really provide for a transition out of poverty once they were free. And James saw that as the number of free black inhabitants of the city grew, so did the hostility from Philadelphia's white population.

Fardon worked in the abolitionist cause from an early age. He was one of the abolitionists who petitioned Congress to change the 1793 fugitive slave law in the early eighteen hundreds and once he had a family. James was more passionate than ever about abolition and equality. He wrote the pamphlet Letters from a Man of color in 1813, and his desire for his children to have all the same rights as any other citizen is clear in the text he wrote to implore legislators, quote, Are you a parent?

Have you children around whom your affections are bound by those delightful bonds that none but a parent can know? Are they the delight of your prosperity and the solace of your afflictions if all this be true to you? We submit our cause. The parent's feelings cannot air. In that same pamphlet, Forten wrote about the obvious inequality between the white and black residents of Philadelphia, particularly on holidays. He spoke specifically about the Fourth of July and the contradictory nature of celebrating liberty.

When you compared the experiences of Philadelphia's black and white residents. He wrote, quote, It is a well-known fact that black people on certain days of public jubilee dare not be seen after 12 o'clock in the day upon the field to enjoy the times. For no sooner do the fumes of that potent devil liquor mount into the brain than the poor black is assailed. Is it not wonderful that the day set apart for the Festival of Liberty should be abused by the advocates of freedom in endeavoring to sully what they profess to adore?

So if the name James Burton has been sounding familiar to you on this podcast, it might be because we did mention him in our episode on Paul Cuffy. The two men had a number of things in common. They both became wealthy through maritime interests. Cuffy had started to turn a profit in a shipping business and like forten, invested in real estate. You may recall that Cuffy was a supporter of relocation of Africans and people of African descent in the United States to Sierra Leone.

And we referenced this idea earlier in this episode, although it going on in Great Britain. But of course, that also was an idea that spread across the Atlantic. And in the Paul Cuffy episode, we talked about the failed efforts that preceded coveys involvement in the movement, which started in 1810. Forten initially supported coveys work in this area, but he, like so many others, eventually backed away from this idea and renounced it. He had that change of heart, largely after arranging a number of meetings where people discussed the realities of this plan.

And he came to realize that for most people that he talked to you, this is just not something they wanted to do. Many of them, of course, had no immediate ties to Africa and had never even been there. They considered themselves Americans and they didn't want to abandon that. Being a sailmaker and an abolitionist also came with some tricky choices to navigate. Fabrique, made in the United States, became a bigger issue as the country gained the ability to manufacture textiles, specifically Duqu, which is the heavy duty canvas that's used in Sayle making.

This was part of an effort to get away from the reliance on European goods. But it also meant that the cotton industry, which was intertwined so deeply with slavery, was also flourishing. We do not know James Fortin's thoughts on this. If he ever recorded any, they are lost. But we do know that he did continue to use cotton, duck and cotton. Duck that was manufactured in the United States, but we also know that his daughter, Harriet, for example, who was married to Robert Purvis, was an active participant in the Colored Free Produce Association, which issued the use of anything that had been produced by enslaved people.

So there was almost certainly an awareness of how success in his field was tied, at least in some way to enslavement, although he also leveraged his own success to combat the institution of slavery. And it's also said that he refused to make or repair sales for any ship that he believed to have been involved in slave trade. So the ethics of his business do appear to have mostly been aligned with his antislavery views.

Forten routinely used his wealth to promote the idea of freedom of enslaved people and the rights of free black people. And his money was likely used to purchase the freedom of several people because of his many connections with Mariners' business leaders and lawyers who handle his business affairs. James also had a network of people who he could turn to in order to stay informed and occasionally to leverage his influence. Fortin's own influence actually had a very lengthy reach. There is a specific story about a relative of his.

So through a series of bad events, one of his nephews sons had ended up enslaved in New Orleans when the man that the 10 year old was apprenticed to sold him. And that boy, Amos, did not immediately mention that he had a wealthy uncle in Philadelphia. He was kind of too terrified to say much of anything, by the way the account reads.

But once he did actually say this, the story goes that Robert Leighton, who was the man that had enslaved him through purchase, recognized the name James Forten and looked into the matter.

And ultimately, this led to Amos Dunbar being returned to his family in 1834 and was part of the first National Negro Convention. He spoke out against the American Colonization Society at that event and the years that followed, he once again urged government reform and asking Pennsylvania's state legislature to forego restricting free black people to emigrate into the state.

The 14 children also got very much involved in the cause, and as they aged into adulthood, they wrote and they spoke and they helped form abolitionist groups. His daughters in particular were really, really good writers. James and Charlotte Fortin's home became a hub of abolitionist activity, both for work and for planning, as well as just for socializing.

Forten was one of the driving forces that got the Liberator, which was the abolitionist paper run by William Lloyd Garrison off the ground. Not only did Forten use his own money to finance its publishing, but he also raised funds from other donors to ensure its ongoing printing. Forten also frequently wrote letters to the press speaking out against slavery and for civil rights. Although he usually used a pen name for this, he favored signing off as a colored Philadelphian or a man of color as the two most common ones.

But in a lot of cases, including his 1813 pamphlet, most of Philadelphia knew that these writings were the work of James Forten.

In 1840, the Philadelphia Board of Education plans to close the only public high school for black students in Philadelphia, and Forten intervened in rallying his friends to promise to aid in the school's enrollment numbers and support, Forten managed to save the Lombard Street School. There is sort of a sad irony there where the school board ended up closing another school because they were afraid that the numbers were so low because these two schools were splitting enrollment and the school they closed had been the one that he had sent his kids to.

And so he kind of doomed one school to save another. But then beginning in 1840, when James started to feel unwell and over that summer, he really started to have difficulty breathing. There has been speculation over the years that he may have had tuberculosis, but there are no medical records to consult. And it's just as possible that the various filaments and chemicals that he was exposed to throughout his career of steelmaking had damaged his lungs.

James fought and died in March of 1842 at his Philadelphia home at 3rd and Lombard on the day of his funeral. A huge crowd of people, hundreds of them, followed the hearse through the city streets to show their respect for him. It was really unprecedented for a black man to receive that kind of a funeral procession, not just a number, but because the crowd was made up of both black and white citizens walking together, particularly surprising because Philadelphia really remains mired in a lot of conflict stemming from racist attitudes of its white inhabitants.

Jay Miller McKim, who was an associate and a friend through the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society, wrote this about the funeral procession, quote, The vast concourse of people of all classes and complexions numbering from three to 5000 that followed his remains to the grave bore testament. To the estimation in which he was universally held, James Fortin's widow, Charlotte, lived for more than 40 more years after James died and was just a few days shy of her 100th birthday when she died in the late 1980s.

His surviving children continued both his business and his activism. He had stipulated in his will that the money he left to his daughters was theirs and would not become part of any husband's fortunes.

Yeah, I kind of love that detail that he was also a little bit of a feminist. Yeah, he's such a cool figure. And I it's one of those things. This is a long ish episode, but I had to cut so many cool things about him to work because there are a jillion stories that people would tell about him and their encounters with him.

So as are our usual apology, if I left your favorite out, I'm sorry, but yeah, I like I said, I can't believe we never talked about it before. Yeah, yeah. I'm glad you chose this one, because from the the brief references to him in the Paul Cuffy episode, it was like I knew the parts about being involved in the abolition movement. I knew about his shifting support for the colonization plans of sending people to Sierra Leone.

I did not know any of the stuff about privateers or sailmaker. Yeah, yeah. There's one particular really, really good biography of him, and it goes into so much detail about Sayle making that I was like down a rabbit hole of kind of delite is like sowing talk.

But I will shift gears and do a little bit of listening reel, if that's cool with you.

That seems good to me. This is from our listener. I don't know. She pronounces her name Laura or Laura. But writes, Hi, Tracey and Holly, I often think I'm going to write you after listening to an episode such as after your episode back in 2013 about John Harvey Kellogg, my great grandparents trained as nurses at Battle Creek under Kellogg with my great grandfather being part of an effort to open a similar sanitarium in Wisconsin before he married my great grandmother and then both of them after marriage, working as nurses in Mexico, opening a health food store and hydrotherapy clinic in Washington, D.C., and then moving to Homestead in Alberta, Canada, where they were the main medical personnel in a prairie community.

Lara, please write that story.

I want all of that information, but she goes on. But it was the Isabella Bird episode that finally prompted me to write. I so appreciated the episode. I first learned about her on my honeymoon to Kauai in 2003 when I bought her book about the Hawaiian Islands in a gift shop. And then I became really fascinated with her and read many of her other books. I checked my bookshelf and found ones about the Rockies, Japan, Malaysia and Tibet.

Embellished or not, some of the things she did were unusual for a woman of her time. And I found that aspect of her writing interesting, including the details of how she traveled, what she packed, etc.. But over time, I found her writing more problematic for many of the reasons you mentioned in the podcast. I love the podcast and I really appreciate the diversity of subjects you cover. There have been several times over the past couple of years that a friend has posted a link to something on Facebook about a historical event, usually a news article looking back at an event with a comment along the lines of I had no idea about this until recently, and I've been able to say, hey, if you want to know more about this, you should check out this episode of Stuffy Ministry Glass.

You're like our little personal PR person, which I appreciate.

Thank you again. For one, I'm really, really fascinated about your great grandparents, and I really do hope you write that book.

And also. Yeah, Isabella Lucy Bird is an interesting creature. I think a lot of people who maybe were exposed to her writing, you know, at one point in their lives as they go through it and realize over time that it's remains fascinating. But it is also problematic in its way.

Yeah. When we when we first put that episode on our social media, there was a surprising to me, like a surprisingly large number of people who were like, oh, no, I just started reading this book and now I'm afraid I'm going to learn all the like, all the problematic things about her. And I was like, I'm surprised that there are this many people who listen to our show who are reading her books right now who don't know.

Right. Right. Well, like, I could see you picking up one of her books, but. Yeah, and it's hard to avoid all of the problematic parts of.

Yeah, well, and I like I said in that episode, I kind of take for granted that that's going to be the case of any 19th century traveler. We talk about rights. Absolutely. I mean, we've seen it happen over and over and over. But if you would like to write to us, you could do so. You can do that. A history podcast at my heart, rediff.com. You can also find us on social media at MTT in history.

If you would like to subscribe to the show, it is easy as pie to do so.

You can do that in the I Heart radio app, at Apple podcast or wherever it is you listen. Stuff you missed in history class is the production of I Heart Radio for more podcasts from My Heart radio visit by her radio app Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.


(1836) James Forten, Jr. “Put on the Armour of Righteousness”

James Forten, Jr. was the son of Charlotte and James E. Forten, prominent Philadelphia abolitionists and as such was part of a second generation of three generations of political activists. Raised in this remarkable family, James Forten, Jr., became politically active at an early age. While still a teenager, he wrote for the Liberator and was an active member of the Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia and of the American Moral Reform Society. On the evening of April 14, 1836, nineteen-year-old Forten presented an address to the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. That address appears below.

LADIES —There is nothing that could more forcibly induce me to express my humble sentiments at all times, than an entire consciousness that is the duty of every individual who would wish to see the foul curse of slavery swept forever from the land—who wishes to become one amongst the undaunted advocates of the oppressed—who wishes to deal amongst the undaunted advocates of the oppressed—who wishes to deal justly and love mercy. In a word, it is my indispensable duty, in view of the wretched, the helpless, the friendless condition of my countrymen in chains, to raise my voice, feeble though it be, in their behalf to plead for the restoration of their inalienable rights. As to the character of the ANTI-SLAVERY-SOCIETY, it requires but one glance from an impartial eye, to discover the purity of its motives—the great strength of its moral energies its high and benevolent-its holy and life giving principles. These are the foundations, the very architecture of Abolition, and prove its sovereignty. In fact, all associated bodies which have for their great aim the destruction of tyranny, and the moral and intellectual improvement of mankind, have been, and ever will, considered as bearing a decided superiority over all others. And how well may this Association, before which I now have the honor to appear, be deemed one of that description and still more is its superiority increased from a knowledge of the truth that it is composed entirely of your sex. It stands aloof from the storms of passion and political tumult, exhibiting in its extended and Christian views a disposition to produce an immediate reformation of the heart and soul. Never before has there been a subject brought into the arena of public investigation, so fraught with humanity—so alive to the best interest of our country—so dear to all those for whose benefit it was intended, as the one which now calls you together. How varied and abundant—how eloquent and soul-thrilling have been the arguments advanced in its defence, by the greatest and best of the land and yet, so boundless is the theme—so inexhaustible the fountain, that even the infant may be heard lisping a prayer for the redemption of the perishing captive.

LADIES —The task you are called upon to perform is certainly of vital importance. Great is the responsibility which this association imposes upon you however, I need scarcely remind you of it, feeling confident that long before this you have made a practical and familiar acquaintance with all its bearings, and with every sentence contained in your society’s sacred declaration ever remembering that in it is concentrated one of the noblest objects that ever animated the breast of a highly favored people—the immediate and unconditional abolition of Slavery. It is the acknowledgement of a broad principle like this, and recommending it to a prejudiced public, who have been all along accustomed to reason upon the dangerous doctrine of gradualism, viewing it as the only safe and efficient remedy for this monstrous evil which has brought about such an excitement, and convulsed our country from North to South an excitement which I have every reason to believe will prove a powerful engine towards the furtherance of your noble cause. As to this opposition now arrayed against you, terrible as it appears, it is no more than what you might anticipate it is a fate which, in this age of iniquity, must inevitably follow such a change as your society proposes to effect. For what else is to be expected for a measure the tendency of which is to check the tide of corruption—to make narrower the limits of tyrannical power—to unite liberty and law—to save the body of the oppressed from the blood-stained lash of the oppressor—and to secure a greater respect and obedience to Him who wills the happiness of all mankind, and who endowed them with life, and liberty, as conducive to that happiness? What else, I repeat, can be expected but opposition, at a time like this, when brute force reigns supreme when ministers of the Gospel, commissioned to spread the light of Christianity among all nations are overleaping the pale of the church, forsaking the holy path, and sowing the seeds of discord where they should plant the “olive branch of peace.” When liberty has dwindled into a mere shadow, its vitality being lost, shrouded in darkness, swallowed up as it were in the eternal dumbness of the grave. This, my friends, is the present situation of things, and warns you that the desperate struggle has commenced between freedom and despotism—light and darkness. This is the hour you are called upon to move with a bold and fearless step there must be no luke-warmness, no shrinking from the pointed finger of scorn, or the contemptuous vociferation of the enemy no withholding your aid, or concealing your mighty influence behind the screen of timidity no receding from the foothold you have already gained. To falter now, would be to surrender your pure and unsullied principles into the hands of a vicious and perverted portion of the community, who are anxiously waiting to see you grow weak and fainthearted you would be casting the whole spirit and genius of patriotism into that polluted current just described. To falter now would retard the glorious day of emancipation which is now dawning, for years, perhaps forever. But why should you pause? It is true that public opinion is bitter against you, and exercises a powerful influence over the minds of many it is also true that you are frustrated in nearly every attempt to procure a place to hold your meetings, and the hue and cry is raised, “Down with the incendiaries-hang all who dare to open their mouths in vindication of equal rights” still, this would be no excuse for a dereliction of duty you are not bound to follow public opinion constantly and lose sight of the demands of justice for it is plain to be seen that public opinion, in its present state, is greatly at fault it affixes the seal of condemnation upon you without giving you an opportunity to be fairly heard therefore I think the obligation ought to cease, and you pursue a more natural course by looking to your own thoughts and feeling as a guide, and not to the words of others. Again—in order to promote your antislavery principles you should make it the topic of your conversation amidst your acquaintances, in every family circle, and in the shades of private life. Be assured that by acting thus, hundreds will rise up to your aid. . . .

I rejoice to see you engaged in this mighty cause it befits you it is your province your aid and influence is greatly to be desired in this hour of peril it never was, never can be insignificant. Examine the records of history, and you will find that woman has been called upon in the severest trials of public emergency. That your efforts will stimulate the men to renewed exertion I have not the slightest doubt for, in general, the pride of man’s heart is such, that while he is willing to grant unto woman exclusively many conspicuous and dignified privileges, he at the same time feels an innate disposition to check the modest ardour of her zeal and ambition, and revolts at the idea of her managing the reins of improvement. Therefore, you have only to be constantly exhibiting some new proof of your interest in the cause of the oppressed, and shame, if not duty, will urge our sex on the march. It has often been said by anti-abolitionists that the females have no right to interfere with the question of slavery, or petition for its overthrow that they had better be at home attending to their domestic affairs, &c. What a gross error-what an anti-christian spirit this bespeaks. Were not the only commands, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them,” and “Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you,” intended for women to obey as well as man? Most assuredly they were. But from whom does this attack upon your rights come? Not, I am confident, from the respectable portion of our citizens, but invariably from men alienated by avarice and self-importance from the courtesy and respect which is due to your sex on all occasions such “men of property and standing” as mingled with the rank, breath, and maniac spirit, of the mob at Boston, men (I am sorry to say) like the Representative from Virginia, Mr. [ Henry] Wise, who, lost to all shame, openly declared you to be devils incarnate. And for what? Why, because the ladies in the several states north of the Potomac, in the magnitude of their philanthropy, with hearts filled with mercy, choose to raise their voices in behalf of the suffering and the dumb–because they choose to raise their voices in behalf of the suffering and the dumb–because they choose to exercise their legal privileges, and offer their time and talents as a sacrifice, in order that the District of Columbia may be freed, and washed clean from the stains of blood, cruelty and crime. It is for acting thus that you received so refined a compliment. Truly, some of our great men at the South are hand and hand in inequity: they are men after the heart of the tyrant Nero, who wished that all the Romans had but one neck that he might destroy them all at a single blow. This is just the position in which these Neros of a modern mould would like to place all who dare to utter one syllable against the sin of slavery–that is if they had the power.

But, Ladies, I verily believe that the time is fast approaching when thought, feeling and action, the three principal elements of public opinion, will be so revolutionized as to turn the scale in your favor when the prejudice and contumely of your foes will be held in the utmost contempt by an enlightened community. You have already been the means of awakening hundreds from the deep slumber into which they have fallen they have arisen, and put on the armour of righteousness, and gone forth to battle. Yours is the cause of Truth, and must prevail over error it is the cause of sympathy, and therefore it calls aloud for the aid of woman.

Sympathy is woman’s attribute, By that she has reign’d—by that she will reign.

Yours is the cause of Christianity for it pleads that the mental and physical powers of millions may not be wasted–buried forever in ruins that virtue may not be sacrificed at the altar of lasciviousness making the South but one vast gulf of infamy that the affections of a parent may not be sundered that hearts may not be broken that souls, bearing the impress of the Deity-the proof of their celestial origin and eternal duration—may not be lost. It is for all these you plead, and you must be victorious never was there a contest commenced on more hallowed principles. Yes, my friends, from the height of your holy cause, as from a mountain, I see already rising the new glory and grandeur of regenerated—Free-—America! And on the corner stone of that mighty fabric, posterity shall read your names. But if there be the shadow of a doubt still remaining in the breasts of anyone present as to your success, I would beg them to cast their eyes across the broad bosom of the Atlantic, and call to mind the scenes which transpired a short time since. (There shone the influence of a woman!) Call to mind the 1st of August, a day never to be forgotten by the real philanthropist when justice, mantled in renovated splendour, with an arm nerved to action—her brow lighted up by a ray from Heaven, mounted on the car of Freedom, betook her way to the spot were Slavery was stalking over the land, making fearful ravages among human beings. There the “lust of gain, had made the fiercest and fullest exhibition of its hardihood.” There, Justice looked, on the one hand, to the “prosperity of the lordly oppressor, wrung from the sufferings of a captive and subjugated people” and on the other, to the “tears and untold agony of the hundreds beneath him.” There, was heard the sighs and stifled groans of the once happy and gay hopes blighted in the bud. There, cruelty had wrought untimely furrows upon the cheek of youth. She saw all this but the supplicating cry of mercy did not fall unheeded upon her ear. No. She smote the monster in the height of his power link after link fell from the massive chain, and eight hundred thousand human beings sprung into life again.

It was WOMAN who guided that car! It was woman who prompted Justice to the work. Then commenced the glorious Jubilee then the eye, once dim, was seen radiant with joy.


Black History Makers: James Forten

James Forten (September 2, 1766 – March 4, 1842) was an African-American abolitionist and wealthy businessman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born free in the city, he became a sailmaker after the American Revolutionary War. As a boy, James signed on as a powder boy with a privateer, the Royal Louis, during the Revolutionary War in 1781. His mission as a member of the Royal Louis was to hunt down and plunder British merchant ships. Nearly fifteen years old, he was expecting to earn prize money from the plunder to support his family.

Although a successful first foray, the Royal Louis lost its second encounter off the coast of Virginia where James was captured. The young Patriot, also known as prisoner number 4102, was present at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence back on July 8, 1776, was released in a prisoner exchange in the spring of 1782. Upon his release, James walked 80 miles to his home in Philadephia. Adding to his misery, he was barefoot for most of the walk. He didn’t luck upon a pair of shoes until he reached Trenton, New Jersey.

Twenty-four years after that long walk from New York to Philadelphia, James Forten was not only a healthy man but a prosperous one, too–and with a big family. James owned a large three-story brick house on Lombard Street, block away from his thriving business. Following in his father’s footsteps, James became a master sailmaker. Rapidly rising from apprentice to the supervisor, junior partner then owner in 1798. His mentor Robert Bridges helped him secure the loan to purchase Robert Bridges and Co., which eventually became James Forten and Co. At a time when many whites refused to work for Blacks, about half of the twenty or thirty employees at James Forten and Co. were white.

James eventually amassed an estimated fortune of $100,000, the equivalent of about $2 million today, through his successful sail-making business, real estate investments, and other ventures. Generous with his wealth, James supported his mother and his sister’s family. He also gave substantial sums to the Free African Society, as well as, to abolitionists organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Much admired in his day as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and pillar of Philadelphia’s Black community, James Forten was greatly mourned when he died. One of the city’s newspapers ran his obituary under the title “Death of an Excellent Man.”

Read more about James Forten in the new book, Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls


James Forten’s Decision

James Forten was a free African American at the time of the American Revolution who faced an interesting choice at one point in the war. He was born to free parents in 1766, and attended a Quaker school for free black children for two years of his childhood, while also working to help support his family. Forten was 14 years old when he joined the crew of an American warship in 1781. When his ship was captured by the British, he was sent to a prison ship where the captain was impressed by Forten and offered to send him to England and educate him, rather than have him remain a prisoner. What would you have done if you were James Forten?

James Forten was an American and a patriot. He refused the captain’s offer, feeling that to accept it would be a betrayal of his country. He then spent seven months on the British prison ship Jersey, infamous for brutal conditions and daily deaths from hunger and disease. Forten survived and was exchanged after seven months. Upon release, he walked from Brooklyn to Philadelphia and took up a job as a sailmaker’s apprentice. In time he invented a mechanism that made handling ship’s rigging easier, and the profits from this invention helped him to open his own sail loft on the Philadelphia waterfront.

For the rest of his life Forten used his money and influence to benefit humanitarian and moral causes such as abolition of slavery for all African Americans, women’s rights and temperance. He contributed major funding to William Lloyd Garrison’s publication, Liberator. Although the causes he supported were controversial, Forten continued to prosper and was respected by black and white citizens alike. He was not only the most affluent black man in Philadelphia, he was one of the wealthiest Americans of his time, with holdings estimated at $100,000. His decision in 1781 to stay in America yielded great benefits to the causes he supported, particularly the cause of abolition. He died in 1842, just 18 years before the outbreak of Civil War and 20 years before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.


Mad Anthony Wayne and the Storming of Stony Point

The son of Irish immigrants, Anthony Wayne was among the first to answer the calls to fight for independence. A friend of Marquis de Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin, the rowdy Irishman soon gained a reputation for fierceness in battle and became one of Gen. George Washington’s most trusted commanders.

In 1778, Washington’s forces were in dire straits after a string of defeats. Pushing deeper inland, the British forces seized control of the Hudson River as part of a strategy to pin down Washington’s army. The river crossing was protected by a well manned British fort named Stony Point, which was surrounded by water on three sides. The hilltop was further fortified with hundreds of men, cannons, and earthen work defenses.

Washington asked his Irish companion if he could take the fort, despite being outnumbered. Wayne retorted, “Issue the orders, sir, and I will storm hell.”

Lacking the men to take the fort in a conventional assault, Wayne split his forces in three. One was to lead a feint through the swamp by night, up the only path to the fortress in what appeared to be a conventional assault. The other two were ordered to empty their firearms.

The night was so dark, the rebels tied white papers to their hats so they could tell themselves apart from the imperial soldiers.

With nothing but bayonets, hundreds of men silently waded through the low tide on each side of the peninsula fortress. Distracted by the forward feint, the British commanders didn’t realize what was happening until the patriots surrounded them. The Irishman’s forces were now too close to the hill for the British to effectively use their cannons. Now in close quarters, Wayne personally charged the fortress with an unloaded musket against a hail of fire.

The unexpected rebel bayonet charge punched through the fortifications on both sides simultaneously, and the terrified British regulars began to surrender en masse. The fort, and the river with it, was again in American hands. In the complete attack, Wayne lost 15 men, and was himself shot in the charge. In total, more than 550 British soldiers surrendered.

Despite seeing his own men slaughtered by the British after surrendering earlier in the war, Wayne treated each redcoat with honor, earning praise from both sides. For the extraordinary act of leading a night charge on a high ground fort with only a bayonet, he earned the moniker “Mad Anthony Wayne,” a nickname he’d proudly use for the rest of his life.

When Washington came to the injured general to congratulate him after the battle, Wayne stated, “Our officers and men behaved like men determined to be free.”

Mad Anthony Wayne fought through the remainder of the war as a brigadier general and went on to be one of the nation’s first congressmen from Georgia.


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Born in 1766 in Philadelphia, Forten worked as an apprentice sailmaker with Robert Bridges, a businessman his father had worked with before he died.

Becoming a powder boy during the Revolutionary War on the Royal Lewis sailing ship, Forten’s ship was captured in 1781 by the British Navy. The captain of the British ship was impressed by Forten’s “honest and open countenance,” and assigned him to look after his 12-year-old son on the voyage to New York harbor.

The two boys became friends, and after some weeks, the captain asked Forten if he would like to go back to England where he would take care of him and ensure that he was well-educated. Forten, with this arrangement, would need to change sides but he refused despite the goodies on offer.

“He signed up for the cause of independence, and he wouldn’t betray it,” Winch said.

After seven months on a British prison ship, Forten was eventually released, and he returned to Philadelphia, where he resumed his sailmaking job with Bridges. Impressed with his work, Bridges soon promoted Forten to foreman in the sail loft, and in 1798 when Bridges retired, he sold the business to Forten.

Forten, at age 32, was now the owner of one of the most successful sail lofts in town with over 40 workers, including apprentices and master tradesmen. Becoming one of the wealthiest men in the city, Forten added to his wealth by diversifying. An account states that he was buying, selling, and renting real estate and using the profits to buy bonds, mortgages, bank and railroad stocks, and shares in various companies while becoming a respected money lender and financial adviser.

In 1832, his fortune was estimated at $100,000. “It might have been much easier for him, and better for business, had he not been so openly opposed to slavery,” Winch said.

Alongside his business, Forten was also into politics, campaigning against slavery and fighting for the rights of his fellow African Americans, particularly women and the poor while opposing the colonization movements of the American Colonization Society.

In the 1800s, he was the leader in organizing a petition that called for Congress to emancipate all slaves. Basically, Forten petitioned the U.S. Congress to modify the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which gave slave owners the right to cross state lines and take back a runaway slave.

Forten also published a pamphlet titled A Series of Letters by a Man of Colour to oppose a Pennsylvania Senate Bill that would restrict African-American emigration. A generous Forten also funded The Liberator owned by fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison — a newspaper which spoke against brutal injustices and inhumanity of slavery.

Together with his wife and children, Forten also founded and financed about six abolitionist organizations while buying freedom for slaves. Indeed, Forten made his wealth at a time most African Americans were still slaves, all the while proving that one could succeed in business without involving slavery.

And decades after his death on March 4, 1842, he became Philadelphia’s first black man to be identified and honored for his service in the Revolutionary War.


Watch the video: James Forten Vocabulary (May 2022).