James Forten was born in 1766 nearly a hundred years ago. His ancestors had lived in Pennsylvania for several generations and so far as he could trace them they had never been slaves. In his boyhood the war of the American Revolution began. The States of this Union were then colonies of Great Britain. Being taxed without being represented in the British Parliament, they remonstrated against it as an act of injustice. The king, George the Third, was a dull obstinate man disposed to be despotic. The loyal respectful petitions of the Colonies were treated with indifference or contempt and at last they resolved to become independent of England.
He never drank any intoxicating liquor and was a steadfast supporter of the Temperance Society. Being of a kindly and humane disposition he espoused the principles of the Peace Society. His influence and pure example were also given to those who were striving against licentiousness. Indeed he was always ready to assist in every good word and work. He died in 1842 at the age of seventy six years. His funeral procession was one of the largest ever seen in Philadelphia thousands of people of all classes and all respect to his character.
The Freedmen's Book By Lydia Maria Francis Child Published 1866
The Boyhood of James Forten
He himself took an active part in the revolutionary war and fell into the hands of the enemy while serving in the Royal Louis under the father of the celebrated Decatur. It was in 1780 that this vessel was captured by the Amphion commanded by Sir John Beazley. Sir John's son who was then a midshipman about the same age with young Forten was one day playing at marbles on the deck when the latter, who had been employed to pick them up, exhibited such superior skill after the game was over in knuckling down and hitting the object aimed at, that the young Englishman was delighted with him. The acquaintance soon ripened into a sort of intimacy, and his generous friend offered if he would accompany him to England to provide for his education and assist him in procuring some respectable occupation,. The young Africo-American however preferred serving his country, small as the chance was that he would ever recover his liberty, to the brilliant career thus placed before him, and he was ultimately transferred to the prison ship, the old Jersey of sixty four guns, then lying in the East river where the New York navy yard now is.
Sir John's son was so affected at parting that he shed tears and having obtained from his father a protection for him against enlistment saved him from the wretched fate which befell many of his brethren who were carried by their captors to the West Indies and sold there as slaves.
He remained in confinement seven months till he was sent home in exchange. During the period of his detention no less than 3500 prisoners fell victims to an epidemic which the crowded state of the vessel occasioned. The average number on board was 1500.
When the war was over Forten went to London where he remained a year and on his return to his native land obtained employment in the sail loft ,which is now his own property and which has witnessed his industry and enterprise for upwards of forty six years. In his business as a sail maker he is generally considered to stand above competition.
Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America From April, 1833, to October, 1834 By Edward Strutt Abdy Published 1866
James Forten, the Hero
Being near the water he had opportunities at twelve different times to save people from drowning, which he sometimes did at the risk of his own life. The Humane Society of Philadelphia presented him with an engraving to which was appended a certificate of the number of people he had saved, and the thanks of the Society for his services. He had it framed and hung in his parlor, and when I visited him in 1835 he pointed it out to me and told me he would not take a thousand dollars for it.
Forten Opposes the Colonization Movement
He early saw that colonizing free blacks to Africa would never abolish Slavery but that on the contrary it tended to prolong its detestable existence. He presided at the first meeting of colored people in Philadelphia to remonstrate against the Colonization Society. He was an earnest and liberal friend of the Anti- Slavery Society and almost the last words he was heard to utter were expressions of love and gratitude to William Lloyd Garrison for his exertions in behalf of his oppressed race.
James Forten's Family
In process of time he became owner of the sail loft and also of a good house in the city. He married a worthy woman and they brought up a family of eight children. But though he had served his country faithfully in his youth, though he had earned a hundred thousand dollars by his ingenuity and diligence, and though his character rendered him an ornament to the Episcopal Church to which he belonged, yet so strong was the mean and cruel prejudice against his color that his family were excluded from schools where the most ignorant and vicious whites could place their children. He overcame this obstacle at great expense by hiring private teachers in various branches of education. By the unrivalled neatness and durability of his work and by the uprightness of his character he obtained extensive business, and for more than fifty years employed many people in his sail loft.
He likewise told me of a vessel engaged in the slave trade the owners of which applied to him for rigging. He indignantly refused declaring that he considered such a request an insult to any honest or humane man. He always had the cause of the oppressed colored people warmly at heart and was desirous to do everything in his power for their improvement and elevation.
The Freedmen's Book By Lydia Maria Francis Child Published 1866
While at the Convention in Philadelphia in 1833 I became acquainted with two colored gentlemen who interested me deeply, Mr. James Forten and Mr. Robert Purvis. The former then nearly sixty years of age was evidently a man of commanding mind and well informed. He had for many years carried on the largest private sail making establishment in that city having at times forty men in his employ most if not all of them white men. He was much respected by them and by all with whom he had any business transactions among whom were many of the prominent merchants of Philadelphia. He had acquired wealth and he lived in as handsome a style as any one should wish to live. I dined at his table with several members of the Convention and two English gentlemen who had recently come to our country on some philanthropic mission.
We were entertained with as much ease and elegance as I could desire to see. Of course, the conversation was for the most part on topics relating to our antislavery conflict. The Colonization scheme came up for consideration and I shall never forget Mr Forten's scathing satire.
Among other things he said, "My great grandfather was brought to this country a slave from Africa. My grandfather obtained his own freedom. My father never wore the yoke. He rendered valuable services to his country in the war of our Revolution, and I though then a boy was a drummer in that war. I was taken prisoner and was made to suffer not a little on board the Jersey prison ship. I have since lived and labored in a useful employment, have acquired property, and have paid taxes in this city. Here I have dwelt until I am nearly sixty years of age and have brought up and educated a family as you see thus far. Yet some ingenious gentlemen have recently discovered that I am still an African, that a continent three thousand miles and more from the place where I was born is my native country. And I am advised to go home. Well it may be so. Perhaps if I should only be set on the shore of that distant land I should recognize all I might see there and run at once to the old hut where my forefathers lived a hundred years ago."
His tone of voice, his whole manner sharpened the edge of his sarcasm. It was irresistible. And the laugh which it at first awakened soon gave way to an expression on every countenance of that ineffable contempt which he evidently felt for the pretence of the Colonization Society. At the table sat his excellent motherly wife and his lovely accomplished daughters all with himself somewhat under the ban of that accursed American prejudice which is the offspring of slavery. I learnt from him that their education evidently of a superior kind had cost him very much more than it would have done if they had not been denied admission into the best schools of the city. Soon after dinner we all left the house to attend a meeting of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society. It was my privilege to escort one of the Misses Forten to the place of meeting.
What was my surprise when on my return to Boston I learnt that this action of mine had been noticed and reported at home. "Is it true Mr. May", said a lady to me, "that you walked in the streets of Philadelphia with a colored girl?" "I did", was my reply,"and should be happy to do it again. And I wish that all the white young ladies of my acquaintance were as sensible, well educated, refined, and handsome withal as Miss Forten." This was too bad and I was set down as one of the incorrigibles .
Some Recollections of Our Antislavery Conflict By Samuel Joseph May Published 1866