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James Forten

Birthplace: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Thomas Forten and Margaret NN
Husband of Charlotte Forten and Martha Beatte
Father of Charlotta Forten; William Deas Forten; Mary Theresa Isabella Forten; Thomas Willing Francis Forten; James Forten, Jr. and 4 others
Brother of Abigail Forten

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About James Forten

James Forten was a wealthy African-American businessman (sail maker) and abolitionist, born free in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 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.

At age 15, during the American Revolutionary War, Forten served on the privateer Royal Louis, which was captured by British forces. He was sent to the English prison ship Jersey.

n 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed James Forten on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.


James Forten, born 6 September 1766 in Philadelphia, left school in 1775 and went to work in a grocery store. In 1780 he was a powder boy aboard the Royal Lewis and later, a prisoner of war on an English ship. After the war he went to London for a year. On his return to Philadelphia, he worked in Robert Bridges' sailmaking shop on Delaware Avenue above Pine Street. He became foreman of the shop in 1788 and became the owner in 1798 - employing about 40 white and African American men [Minton, Early History of Negroes in Business in Philadelphia, 15-6]. He invented a device for handling heavy sails which helped him amass over $100,000. In 1800 he joined with Rev. Richard Allen in circulating petitions calling on Congress to free the slaves, and during the War of 1812 he, Rev. Richard Allen, and Absolom Jones organized a volunteer force of 2,500 men to help defend Philadelphia. In 1817 he was a leader of Philadelphia African Americans who protested American Colonization Society attempts to resettle African Americans in Africa. He is credited with convincing William Lloyd Garrison and other white abolitionists to call for emancipation and equality rather than colonization [Encyclopedia of Black America, 390-1]. He helped finance Garrison and his newspaper, The Liberator, and he helped runaway slaves on the underground railroad [World Book Encyclopedia, 419]. His children were

i. Robert Bridges, whose daughter Charlotte Forten Grimke was the author of "A Free Negro in the Slave Era."

ii. Margaretta, secretary of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society.

iii. Sarah Louisa.

iv. Harriet, married the abolitionist Robert Puvis and was active in the anti-slavery movement [Encyclopedia of Black America, 391]


1. The Fooks family was from Somerset County [1783 Worcester County Tax List, MSA 1161-11-5, p.4].