Color Him Extraordinary: Philly’s Famous James Forten

Portrait of James Forten by unknown artist

Like many Philadelphians, I’ve long known of James Forten’s reputation as a successful black sail-maker and businessman.

But I had no idea how loyal, courageous and generous he was. After doing more research on him, I’m ready to place him high on the list of Philadelphia’s civic heroes.

Here’s why:

After being captured by the British on just his second voyage as a 14-year old crewman on a privateer, Forten gave up a unique opportunity at a life of wealth and privilege.

All he had to do was agree to live in England with the family of Captain John Bazely, commander of the ship that captured him. Forten refused to betray his country. As a result, he then spent seven months on the HMS Jersey, a British hellhole of a prison ship. An average of eight prisoners a day died on the Jersey.

Forten also gave up a chance to escape from that prison ship. Learning that a naval officer was to be exchanged, Forten reportedly asked to stow away in the man’s sea chest. At the last minute, Forten let Daniel Brewson, a white Philadelphian two years younger and “his companion in suffering” go in his place. Then he “assisted in taking down ‘the chest of old clothes’ … from the sides of the prison ship,” says Julie Winch in her book, “A Gentleman of Color: the Life of James Forten.” To me, that was an amazing act of charity.

Interesting Oddities

  • Forten was not James’ real name. A free black, he changed it from Fortune, which was a common name among slaves. In addition, nine slaves with that name had fled to the British side. So Fortune was not a name that would help Forten make his.
  • Forten’s ability to shoot marbles “helped save him from a life of West Indian servitude.” How? His “unerring hand” impressed Henry Bazely, the 12-year old son of the ship Captain and a youth then training for his own career in the Royal Navy. Excited, he told his father about Forten’s skill, who then witnessed it for himself. After that demonstration, Forten received greater freedom than other prisoners. And even though he turned down Captain Bazely’s offer to join Henry in England, the officer sent a letter to the Commander of the prison ship commending Forten, a kindness James never forgot.
  • Like many other blacks, Forten and his family could not venture out of their Philadelphia home on July 4. If they did, they risked attacks from whites. Forten wrote: “the poor back is assailed like the destroying Hyena or the avaricious Wolf,” and asked: “Is it not wonderful that the day set apart for the festival of Liberty, should be abused by the advocates of freedom, in endeavoring to sully what they profess to adore?”

Forten effectively used the power of the pen to fight racial injustice. In 1813, he anonymously wrote “Letters From a Man of Colour on a Late Bill Before the Senate of Pennsylvania.” This pamphlet strongly denounced a bill in the Pennsylvania legislature requiring emigrating blacks to register with the state. The bill failed.

He fought against slavery in many different ways. He spent half his fortune purchasing the freedom of slaves. He financially supported William Lloyd Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, and also wrote for it. In addition, Forten’s home on Lombard Street served as a station for the Underground Railroad. And the American Antislavery Society was founded in his home.

He also left a powerful legacy: a family of activist children and their spouses who kept the abolitionist movement going. He was a man who left the world far better than he found it. What more could anyone ask for?