James Forten was born of free African American parents in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766. He went to work with his father, a sailmaker, until his dad died when he was seven. He studied at a Quaker school for 2 years but had to quit in 1775 because he needed to help his family by earning some money so he took a job working for a store keeper. James heard the Declaration of Independence read behind Independence Hall when he was nine. When he was 14, he served aboard the privateer ship the Royal Louis during the American Revolution. He was captured by the British and held prisoner for seven months. When he was released he went home for a short time before signing up as a sailor. His ship was headed for England where he stayed for about a year before coming back to America.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, he was apprenticed to a white sailmaker, Robert Bridges. Bridges taught him the trade and gave him money to buy a house. By 1786 he was promoted to foreman and in 1798 he became owner of the company. He inherited Bridges customers and established a reputation as a master craftsman in his own right.

By 1832, James Forten employed about 40 workers: men both black and white to work side by side in his sail loft. He amassed a great fortune and earned respect in the business community.

Forten was an active member at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. He served as a vestryman (a member of the church's lay governing body) and helped the church and its members with business and legal issues. Forten's business experience helped the church to raise funds to support education for African Americans.

Forten, as a successful black businessman, also took an active role in the rights of African Americans. He was a leader of the early abolitionist movement. He often purchased slaves’ freedom, and helped to finance and bring in funding for William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Liberator.

James Forten died in 1842 after living an incredible life. His early years were devoted to providing for his mother, his middle years towards building his fortune and supporting his family and his later years to uplifting his fellow man. He was not only a great sailmaker, but an even greater man.

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Image courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Leon Gardiner Collection.

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