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​James Forten - mini bio

The Inventor James Forten Sr.

James Forten Sr.   1766-1842








James Forten Sr. invented and perfected a sail designed to make the guiding of ships easier.  In addition to becoming a prosperous businessman in the sail making industry, he was an abolitionist, a champion of Blacks' rights, and a leader of reform movements long before the emergence of Frederick Douglass.  Forten spent over half of his $300,000 fortune(a large sum at the time) to finance different crusades for abolitionists' activities.

James Forten Sr. was born in Philadelphia, in 1766, as a free black.  His parents, Thomas and Sarah Forten, were also born free; but his grandparents were brought to America as slaves from Africa.  Forten's elementary school education began in the colored children's free school of Anthony Benezet, a renowned Quaker abolitionist.

At age of eight, Forten began working in a Philadelphia sail loft with his father.  The loft was owned by Robert Bridges.  James worked in a grocery store to help support his mother, after his father's death from a boating accident in 1775.  His formal education ended at the age of ten.

At 14, Forten urged his mother to let him sign up on a ship, the Royal Lewis, as a powder boy during the Revolutionary War.  He later returned home to begin a sail making apprenticeship in Mr. Bridges' sail loft.  Bridges, who was now getting older, appointed young Forten foreman of his sail loft in 1786.  When Bridges retired in 1798, he loaned Forten the money to buy his loft.  At the age of 32, Forten had a workforce of 38 men; half were white.

 Due partly to Forten's innovative sail making, his sail loft became one of the most prosperous in Philadelphia.  Two years later, he built a luxurious three-story home for his second wife, Charlotte, on Philadelphia's Lombard Street.

James Forten's abolitionist activities were numerous.  His amassed fortune enabled him to buy many slaves' freedom (On one occasion, he bought a whole family's freedom).  Congress' overwhelming rejection of a petition presented by the Free Blacks of Philadelphia (suggesting a modification of the Fugitive Slave Act) probably sparked Forten's decision to beccome an abolitionist.

He, along with Black leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, enlisted the help of 2,500 Blacks to help guard Philadelphia against the British during the War of 1812.  He also used his leadership to solicit many of the first 1,700 Black subscribers for William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Liberator, and donated money to help cover the paper's first 27 subscriptions.  His Lombard Street home served as an Underground Railroad way station for escaping slaves.  These examples are only a few of the many activities that Forten was involved in, for he maintained a strong stance against colonization and slavery.

 This inventor-businessman, James Forten Sr. used his resources to improve life for his people.  He was a forerunner for civil rights and a true humanitarian.


Excerpt from A Salute to Black Scientists and Inventors.


This is only a summary of the life of James Forten Sr.