James Forten: America’s First Abolitionist


james-forten1

This month I am commemorating Black History Month and this week I am featuring James Forten. As I was researching history regarding Book IV of the Locket Saga, Sailing Under the Black Flag, I came across this amazing man and included him as a major character in the book. I hope you enjoy our second week’s focus for Black History Month.

James Forten was born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was born a free black man. Over the course of his lifetime, he made significant impact upon the fortunes of the American capitalist system and the livelihood of his contemporaries.
He was the son of Thomas and Sarah Forten and was the grandson of slaves. He grew up in Philadelphia and attended Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for “colored” children. By the time he was eight years old, he was working for Robert Bridges’s sail loft with his father. A year later, his father was killed in a boating accident. This tragedy forced the nine-year-old James into the additional responsibility of supporting his family.
Forten’s Military Service.

During his early teens, he worked as a powder boy during the Revolutionary War first in the army and then on the ship, the privateer Royal Lewis. In Book IV of the Locket Saga: Sailing Under the Black Flag, he was powder boy for the protagonist Jonathan Mayford.
Most people don’t know that on privateer ships, every member of the crew from the captain down to the deck hands were considered equal. This equality on the Royal Lewis must have left a strong impression on James Forten because it certainly influenced his character.

Prisoner on the Jersey

Forten may have been raised free, but he could certainly empathize with the slaves who had come to America on slave ships.

As told in this fourth book of The Locket Saga, Forten was captured by the British and held prisoner on the Jersey a prison ship. As the story goes, Forten had arranged to be smuggled off the ship in Gustavua Conyngham’s trunk when he allowed Daniel Brewton, two years younger than he was, take his place in the trunk. It was not until March 25, 1782 that Forten was released.

He would never forget the smell of the prison ship. Years later, he was repairing a sail when he smelled that sickening familiar smell. By then, the slave trade was illegal and Forten threatened to press charges because he knew that the ship had been used in the slave trade.

Making His Fortune

After his mother nursed him back to health, Forten boarded the Commerce, a merchant ship. The ship went to London and he worked there for a year.
In 1785, he returned home to resume his previous job. Pleased with his work and dedication, Bridges 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. His desires were realized. Eventually James owned the business, and employed almost 40 workers.
James married Charlotte VanDive, a woman of Native American, African American, and European blood on December 5, 1805. In 1806, he purchased a brick house at Third and Lombard Streets. Charlotte gave birth to all nine of their children here. In addition to a good home, James ensured that each of them received a good education.

James Forten’s Legacy

James Forten newspaper clippingEventually, James Forten became interested in politics and avidly campaigned for and supported the issues of temperance, women’s suffrage, and equal rights for African Americans. In the year 1800, he was the leader in organizing a petition that called for Congress to emancipate all slaves. Given the fact that this was a presidential election year, rumor had it that a few of the presidential candidates (among them Thomas Jefferson) were none too pleased with a Negro man advocating for the emancipation of slaves. His activism was further recognized when he wrote and published a pamphlet denouncing the Pennsylvania legislature for prohibiting the immigration of freed black slaves from other states. Many consider him the “Father of the Abolitionist Movement.”
In 1817 Forten joined with Richard Allen to form the Convention of Color. In the 19th century Allen was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Interestingly, the organization argued for the migration of free black slaves to Canada, but vehemently resisted any movement for a return to the African continent.
James Forten’s early years had been devoted to providing for his widowed mother. As an adult, he focused on acquiring a vast economic fortune and rectifying the brutal injustices that had been perpetrated upon his fellow African Americans, poor people, and women. He believed in liberty for all people and he fought against slavery and for equal rights all of his life. He died on March 4, 1842.

Read Book IV of the Locket Saga: Sailing Under the Black Flag and other books in The Locket Saga

In print at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/cygnetbrown

On Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B076ZSK5PB/ref=series_rw_dp_sw

2 comments
  1. Billybuc said:

    Very interesting read! I never heard of him. Thanks for broadening my knowledge about Black History.

    • 1authorcygnetbrown said:

      My pleasure!

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