James Forten, who was a wealthy busi¬ nessman and abolitionist instrumental in opposing the forcible deportation of African-Americans, grew up the son of free parents in Philadelphia. He left his family at the age of 15 to become a powder boy dur¬ ing the American Revolution.
When his ship was captured by the British, not only did Forten refuse to denounce his country in return for his freedom, he gave his one chance to escape to a younger boy and stayed in captivity until a prisoner exchange was arranged.
This same tenacity made Forten a valu¬ able employee to Robert Bridges, a sail- maker in Philadelphia who named Forten a foreman over 40 men within two years. When Bridges passed away, Forten pur¬ chased the business, made it one of the city’s most profitable, and invent¬ ed a new sailmaking device that earned him great respect, as well as wealth.
As a popular community busi¬ nessman, Forten was one of the strongest voices against the forced colonization of African- Americans. When the American Colonization Society, made up primarily of white slave owners, attempted to pass legislation deporting all free African-Ameri¬ cans to Africa, Forten spoke out.
He gave a speech at the Bethel Church in Philadelphia, stating that it was their ancestors who had enriched the land with their blood and sweat. Forten believed that African-Americans had to stay and continue to fight for freedom with¬ in their new country, and with this statement, he gained an enormous following within his community.
Forten’s support for African- Americans did not stop there. He supported Absolom Jones and Richard Allen (see no. 6) by vacating the St. George Church in protest, and protested Pennsylvania’s attempt to restrict African- American immigration from the South.
He pledged both his wealth and his name to his ideals, and went on to found the Penn¬ sylvania Augustine Society “for the educa¬ tion of people of colour.” He also authored an influential text entitled A Series of Let¬ ters by a Man of Color.
Forever fighting for the improved posi¬ tion of African-Americans in America, Forten unfortunately didn’t live to see the end of slavery, though his words prove that he never doubted its coming: “The spirit of freedom is marching with rapid strides and causing tyrants to tremble …. May America awake….”