James Forten Biography

Activist, Business Leader (1766–1842)
James Forten was an African-American businessman and black leader in pre-Civil War Philadelphia.


James Forten was born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia, PA. A free African-American, he joined the Continental navy at age 15. After service, Forten apprenticed as a sail-maker and eventually became a wealthy businessman and a leader of the black community in pre-Civil War Philadelphia. He devoted much of his time and money to the abolitionist cause and he refused to supply rigging to slave-trade vessels. Forten died in 1842.

Abolitionist Movement

Sail-maker and social activist James Forten was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A free African-American, he joined the Continental navy at age 15 and was among those taken prisoner when his ship, the Royal Louis, was captured by the British. After being released, he returned to Philadelphia and was apprenticed to sail-maker Robert Bridges. He rose to be foreman there (1786), and when Bridges died (1798), he took over control of the sail loft. He became wealthy and was a leader of the black community of Philadelphia. In 1814 he helped enlist 2500 African-American volunteers to protect Philadelphia during the War of 1812.

Active in promoting temperance and peace, he devoted much energy and money to abolishing slavery and gaining the civil rights of African-Americans. He opposed the American Colonization Society and its plans to send blacks out of the USA, provided financial support to William Lloyd Garrison's paper, The Liberator, and refused rigging to slave-trade vessels. Although all but forgotten in ensuing decades, he was arguably the most extraordinary African-American of his era.

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