James Forten was born on September 2, 1766 in Philadelphia to free Black parents Thomas and Margaret Forten. Forten attended a Quaker school as a young child, then went to work with his father who was a sailmaker. His father died when he was still young, and Forten worked multiple jobs to help support his mother and sister.
Forten enlisted in the Revolutionary War effort at age 14. After working in the loft for years, it was his first chance to really see the sails in action. He was assigned to the Royal Lewis, a privateering ship that supported the colonial army. Aboard, he performed many roles and gained critical insight into how sails functioned and could be improved.
On his second voyage, the ship was captured by the British Navy. Their captors initially intended to traffic Forten into slavery in the West Indies, but his charisma eventually won the captain over, and he offered to send Forten to England to receive an education instead. Forten, however, was a staunch believer in the revolution and would not accept a favor from a British captain. Instead, he was held captive on a British prison ship for seven months before being freed in a prisoner exchange. He was just 16 when he returned to Philadelphia, greeted by the joy of his mother and sister who’d believed he was dead.
Forten did eventually go to England for a year and furthered his education in sail making by working in the shipyards and lofts along the River Thames. Then he returned to Philadelphia to apprentice at the loft where he and his father had worked. The loft’s white owner Robert Bridges mentored Forten and refused to indulge racist employees who didn’t want to work under a Black foreman. When Bridges was ready to retire, he gave Forten a loan so he could buy the loft. Within three years, it was paid off and Forten was the owner outright.
Part of what helped Forten rise through the ranks so quickly was his ingenuity. During his time as a sailmaker, he made numerous improvements to sail designs and even invented a new model that helped boats maneuver better and maintain speed—two major improvements for the heavy frigates of the time. He also invented a sail hoist that made work easier and safer for sailmakers and sailors alike. His contributions to naval design were impactful, and a post-war trading boom created high demand for his improved sails. Forten quickly became a well-respected and wealthy pioneer in the industry. In fact, he was one of the wealthiest Americans at the time, Black or white.
Forten used his fortune to fund various humanitarian projects. Over half of his $100,000 (about $3 million today) went to purchasing the freedom of enslaved people, funding a newspaper and a school, and opening his own home to refugees of slavery as a stop on the Underground Railroad. He also worked with abolitionist leaders and women’s rights advocates to promote their causes. His was a civic leader in Philadelphia’s African American community for over 50 years, and his wife and three daughters also became prominent activists, creating the first integrated women’s abolitionist effort, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.
Despite the prominence of his family, it must be acknowledged that race relations declined in Philadelphia throughout Forten’s lifetime. Slave patrols terrorized the city’s Black population, and in 1838, Black men lost their right to vote. Forten was often threatened, and his son was brutally attacked. His achievements are not indicative of an absence of racism or prejudice in his community.
Forten died in 1842, having made major contributions to both the sailing world and to the lives of marginalized peoples around him. His principles were carried on by his children and the many people who received freedom, education and a livelihood through his work.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, 20 percent of American sailors were Black. In fact, going to sea was one of the most equitable professions for Black Americans during the United States’ first centuries. During Black History Month, we’re celebrating the history and legacy of Black sailors in America by featuring a notable figure in our e-newsletter every Friday of the month.
To read last week’s feature on sailor, entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Cuffe, click here.
For maritime Civil War hero William Tillman, click here.
And for whaling captain and abolitionist Absalom Boston, click here.