James Forten: The Black Sailmaker Who Used His Money To Buy Freedom For Slaves

The noble history of the Black man is oftentimes neglected, or swept under the rug, in an attempt to rid him of his glory in the sands of time. But here, we have taken it upon ourselves to find our heroes, and celebrate them. We have chosen to become a voice that screams to the high-heavens of the achievements of the Black man worldwide. And it pleases us to write about one of the finest Black men in American history, in the person of James Forten.

According to the biographer Julie Winch, James Forten was in his teens when he joined others at Independence Square in July 1776 for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

The young Forten believed that the declaration document applied to all Americans, not only whites, a belief that led the 14year old to volunteer to privateer ships which attacked British merchant vessels when the revolutionary war began.

During the course of his volunteering, Forten spent some months on a British prison ship and was nearly sold into slavery, but he came back strong to acquire a vast fortune, a fortune that made him become one of the wealthiest Philadelphians of his time and also aided him to buy the freedom of slaves.

This Is Forten’s Story

He was just a powder boy during the Revolutionary War on the Royal Lewis sailing ship when the ship was captured in 1781 by the British Navy. The captain of the British ship who was impressed by Forten’s honest and open countenance assigned him to look after his 12-year-old son on the voyage to New York harbor.

After some weeks, the two boys became friends, so the captain asked Forten to go back to England with him where he would take care of him and ensure that he was well-educated. However, Forten was not okay with the arrangement as it would require him to change sides, so he refused the offer.

In the words of Winch,

“He signed up for the cause of independence and he wouldn’t betray it,”

After seven months on a British prison ship, Forten was eventually released and he returned to Philadelphia where he resumed his sailmaking job with Bridges. Impressed with his work, Bridges soon promoted Forten to foreman in the sail loft, and in 1798 when Bridges retired, he sold the business to Forten, making Forten the owner of one of the most successful sail lofts in town with over 40 workers including apprentices and master tradesmen.

Forten further added to his wealth by diversifying. An account states that he was buying, selling, and renting real estate and using the profits to buy bonds, mortgages, bank and railroad stocks, and shares in various companies while becoming a respected money lender and financial adviser.

In 1832, his fortune was estimated at $100,000. “It might have been much easier for him, and better for business, had he not been so openly opposed to slavery,” Winch said.

Forten was also into politics, he campaigned against slavery and fought for the rights of his fellow African Americans, particularly women and the poor while opposing the colonization movements of the American Colonization Society.

In the 1800s, he led in the organization of a petition that called for Congress to emancipate all slaves. Basically, Forten petitioned the U.S. Congress to modify the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law which gave slave owners the right to cross state lines and take back a runaway slave.

Forten also published a pamphlet titled; A Series of Letters by a Man of Colour, to oppose a Pennsylvania Senate Bill that would restrict African-American emigration. His generosity also led to his funding of “The Liberator” which was owned by an abolitionist called William Lloyd Garrison. The Liberator was a newspaper that spoke against brutal injustices and inhumanity of slavery.

Before his death, Forten and his family founded and financed about six abolitionist organizations while buying freedom for the enslaved Africans. Forten made his wealth at a time most African Americans were still enslaved, all the while proving that one could succeed in business without involving slavery.

Decades after his death on March 4, 1842, Forten became Philadelphia’s first black man to be identified and honored for his service in the Revolutionary War.


The history of men such as Forten is very important in the discussion of slavery, and its effects today. He is to be celebrated for his bravery, at such a time in American history. He didn’t leave his brethren behind – no. He reached back into the wilderness to save and rescue as many as he could from the jaws of slavery, and oppression.

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