Featured in chapter 3 of Innovation on Tap, James Forten (1766-1842) lived a rags-to-riches story so impressive that he became among the wealthiest businessmen in Philadelphia, and a powerful voice for African-American reform.
Forten’s future was cast the moment he accompanied his father to work at the sail-making business of Robert Bridges, a white Quaker. By age ten, Forten had acquired the basic skills of his lifelong trade while learning to read at a nearby Quaker school.
Anxious to support the Revolution, Forten enlisted as a powder boy on the 450-ton American Royal Louis. During Forten’s maiden voyage, the Royal Louis captured four British vessels. His second cruise was met by the British warship Amphion, however, and in October 1782, Forten found himself a prisoner aboard the Jersey in Manhattan’s East River. He barely survived his seven long months of captivity.
In 1785, Robert Bridges welcomed Forten back to his sail loft, and within a year named the toughened, ambitious young man his foreman. In time, Forten learned how to outfit and repair sails for every kind of vessel that appeared in the port of Philadelphia. In return, Forten provided his older friend and boss with leadership and the wisdom of someone whose own life had once depended upon quality sails.
When Bridges retired in 1798, he lent Forten the money to purchase his sail-making business, ensuring he maintained the firm's customers. Bridges was clearly Forten’s benefactor, but support from the greater Quaker community in Philadelphia helped to level the playing field and made it possible for the talented Forten to excel.
By age thirty-two, he employed a biracial workforce of thirty-eight men, and in 1805 was operating the largest, most complex enterprise being run by a black man in Philadelphia.
This ability to innovate was also important after the War of 1812, when peaceful waters allowed traders to build bigger vessels to accommodate larger cargoes, requiring the design of a new generation of sails.
Forten might have been even richer had he done business with slave traders, but that was work he indignantly refused, abolitionist Lydia Child writes, “declaring that he considered such a request an insult to any honest or humane man.”
By 1820, Forten had likely become the largest sailmaker in Philadelphia, his sail loft was a showplace, and he was a wealthy and admired man.
In addition, he had become a writer and an important voice in the abolitionist movement of the early republic, “the head of a generation of black reformers,” historian Richard Newman writes, “who viewed the written word as a critical part of the African-American struggle for justice.”
Forten was able to negotiate both black and white communities in ways few others could, a tribute to his own skill, the support and mentoring of Robert Bridges, the Quaker community, and the cosmopolitan nature of Philadelphia, which, in 1830, was America’s largest northern urban black community.
His home on Lombard Street became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Sources (footnoted in Innovation on Tap)
Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
L. Maria Child, “James Forten,” The Freedmen’s Book (Boston: Tricknor and Fields, 1865).
Richard Newman, “Not the Only Story in ‘Amistad’: The Fictional Joadson and the Real James Forten,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Spring 2000).
Emma J. Lapansky-Werner, “Teamed Up with the PAS: Images of Black Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Legacies, November 2005.