James Forten was one of the most central figures of Philadelphia’s black elite in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Born free in 1766, he worked as an apprentice in one of the city’s largest sail lofts. At the age of fourteen, he volunteered to fight for the Americans during the Revolutionary War, which included a stint as a prisoner-of-war on a British ship. Forten eventually returned to Philadelphia and the sail loft where he served as an apprentice. When the owner retired, Forten bought the sail-making business, expanding the business until to become one of the city’s wealthiest men. A committed philanthropist, Forten philanthropic pursuits were many, including helping to fund a Philadelphia school for African American children, purchasing the freedom of slaves, and financing William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator He was an active member of the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. He served as a Philadelphia delegate for an American Moral Reform Society conference, as well as treasurer for the society in 1836. Widowed shortly after his first marriage, Forten and his second wife Charlotte Vandine had nine children, including Sarah and Harriet who were active in the anti-slavery movement. He died March 11, 1842.


James Forten (1766-1842)