African American Transportation History: James Forten, Sailmaker and Abolitionist

James Forten (1766-1842) was a free black man and lifelong Philadelphia resident who earned considerable wealth by making sails for vessels. Forten was also a steadfast foe of slavery in the United States.

He was born free in Philadelphia to Thomas and Margaret Forten. Thomas Forten, who died when James was only seven, had a grandfather who was an enslaved person. Thomas Forten helped make sails for a white businessman named Robert Bridges, whose sail loft was located on a busy Delaware River wharf at Front and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia. (A sail loft is an open space with ample room for laying out the materials needed for creating sails.)

James Forten’s own sail-making career began in earnest when Bridges hired him in 1790 to serve as an apprentice.  Forten quickly became proficient at cutting and sewing materials for large sails for ships in that region of the United States. It did not take long for Bridges to promote Forten to foreman, a position that involved supervising the work of approximately three dozen employees (most of them white) there in the sail loft.

When Bridges retired in 1798, Forten purchased the business for himself. This change in proprietorship was all more remarkable because it was exceedingly rare in the United States at that time for any black person to assume control of a lucrative white-owned enterprise. The financially savvy Forten did more than just survive as the new operator of that sail-making business; he thrived well beyond the expectations of anyone. By 1810, Forten’s sail loft had become one of the most successful in Philadelphia. The profitability of his business also made Forten one of the city’s wealthiest citizens.

Forten leveraged his fortune, and the social standing that came with it, to serve as a high-profile champion of the rights of black people both within his hometown and throughout the country. He helped fund the production of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, for example. In addition, Forten was vice president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Forten died in Philadelphia at the age of 75, and a large number of people – both black and white – attended his funeral at St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church in the city. Forten’s sons Robert and James, Jr., took over his sail-making enterprise.

Image Credit: Public Domain

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