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Profile in The Great Experiment

Disorder (1820 – 1854), an installment of Sam Katz’s Philadelphia The Great Experiment, profiles James Forten

Charles Barkley's
Black History Month All Stars

All Star #7: James Forten

I speak at a lot of schools across the country, and I’ve encountered a trend that drives me freakin’ nuts. I always ask students the following question:

“How many of you want to be a professional athlete or a rapper?”

At inner-city, mostly African American schools, nearly every hand shoots up. When I ask the same question in a white suburban school, maybe 10 percent of hands are raised. I speak to a lot of schools, and this happens without fail.

I tell black kids all the time, “You ain’t gonna be me.” Even if you’re any good on the court, the odds are stacked against you. But I can tell from the blank way they look back at me: They’re putting all their eggs in this totally unlikely basket. But I get why. Young black kids get from the media an unrealistic picture of African American success. Athletes and rappers, with Denzel and Oprah thrown in.

So to mark Black History Month here at The Citizen, I’m going to introduce you every day to my Philadelphia Black History Month All-Stars. Many of them didn’t make it into the history books or even the newspapers of their time. But their stories are inspiring and worth knowing.

07

James Forten

Businessman

James Forten

Businessman

(September 2, 1766 – March 4, 1842)

A sailmaker with a bustling business that employed both black and white workers, Forten was one of the wealthiest Philadelphians of his time, of any race. He used his position and his fortune to fight slavery, and to demand civil rights for African Americans, successfully leading the fight against a Pennsylvania bill that would have required new black residents to register with the state. Born free in Philadelphia, Forten was largely self-taught: He dropped out of school at age 9 to work full time to support his mother and sister. As a privateer on a ship that got caught by the British during the Revolutionary War, he escaped enslavement by impressing the captain, who ensured he was treated the same as white prisoners of war. He was released seven months later and walked back from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, eventually becoming an apprentice to sail-maker Robert Bridges, who passed the business on to Forten. “Has the God who made the white man and the black left any record declaring us a different species?” Forten asked in a letter to state legislators. “Are we not sustained by the same power, supported by the same food. . . . And should we not then enjoy the same liberty. . .?”

EDUCATION:

  • The African School (Quaker school) attended until age 9.

 

ACCOMPLISHMENTS:

  • Worked with bishop Richard Allen to create the first independent black denomination of the African Methodist Episcopal church
  • Financially supported the newspaper, The Liberator, and frequently wrote and published letters attributed to “A Colored Man of Philadelphia.”
  • A successful businessman who became one of the wealthiest people in Philadelphia

 

FINAL WORD:

“By the 1830s, his was one of the most powerful African-American voices, not just for men and women of color in his native city, but for many thousands more throughout the North. He knew how to use the press and the speaker’s podium. He knew about building alliances, when to back down and when to press forwards with his agenda. His rise to prominence, his understanding of the nature of power and authority, his determination to speak out and be heard are object lessons in the realities of community politics. Disfranchised he might have been, but voiceless he never was,” University of Massachusetts professor Julie Winch wrote in A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten.

Home page image: Reaching For Your Star © 2003 City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program / Don Gensler. Photo by Jack Ramsdale

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