Black in the Day…A Pennsylvania Patriot

September 2, 1766:

Black in the Day

James Forten was born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Thomas and Sarah Forten. He was born a free black man. Over the course of his lifetime, he would make a significant impact upon the fortunes of the American capitalist system and the livelihood of his contemporaries.

Born free in the city, he became a sailmaker after the American Revolutionary War. Following an apprenticeship, he became the foreman and bought the sail loft when his boss retired. Based on equipment he himself had developed, he established a highly profitable business. Forten used his wealth and social standing to work for civil rights for African Americans in both the city and nationwide. Beginning in 1817, he opposed the colonization movements, particularly that of the American Colonization Society. He affirmed Americans’ claim to a stake in the United States of America. He persuaded William Lloyd Garrison to adopt an anti-colonization position and helped fund his newspaper The Liberator (1831–65), frequently publishing letters on public issues. He became vice-president of the biracial American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833, and worked for national abolition of slavery. His large family was also devoted to these causes, and two daughters married the mixed-race Purvis brothers, who used their wealth as leaders for abolition.

Having become well established, in his 40s Forten devoted both time and money to working for the national abolition of slavery and gaining civil rightsfor blacks. They were severely discriminated against in Pennsylvania and the North, and generally could not vote or serve on juries. He felt a sense of obligation to work on these issues of his community. “…in 1801, he was among the signers of a petition to the U.S. Congress calling for the abolition of the slave trade and the modification of the Fugitive Slave Lawof 1793.”[5]

In 1813 he wrote a pamphlet called Letters From A Man of Colour, published anonymously. (See External links below.) (Many people knew he had written it.) He denounced a bill under consideration in the Pennsylvania legislature that required all black emigrants to Pennsylvania to be registered with the state, and protested treating free blacks any differently than whites. Some legislators were worried about the number of free blacks who migrated into the state, competing with white laborers. In addition, they knew fugitive slaves often used Pennsylvania as a destination or byway to other free areas, as it was bordered by slave states to the south.

Forten believed the bill was a step backward for black Pennsylvanians. In his “Letters,” Forten argued that the bill would violate the rights of any free blacks entering the state and set the people apart as somehow not equal to whites. Forten wanted the many respectable citizens of the black community to be recognized and valued. In the end, the bill was not passed, and James Forten became known for his succinct and passionate pamphlet.[6] 

He died on March 4, 1842 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and is interred at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.[9]

9 Amazing Facts about James Forten you may not know

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