Discovering Forten


From 1766-1842, lived one of the most impactful Philadelphian black men in history. Yet his name is often unheard of in schools and rarely discussed during Black History Month. His name was James Forten, a free person of African descent, one of the most successful businessmen, philanthropists, and abolitionists.

This February, the Institute of Humanities program of West Orange High School had a field trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. First, the students walked through the history of the American Revolution. Then, the students explored the museum’s new exhibition, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia. This is where I first learned about Forten. 

In the first half of my trip, we learned of Forten’s background as a young teen, born free, and his time on privateer ships. According to BlackPast, when he was eight years old, he worked with his father for Robert Bridges’ sail loft. During the Revolutionary war, Forten was a young teen working as a powder boy on the Royal Lewis sailing ship until he was captured by the British army, but later released back home. After that, he continued to work on ships, leveling up in his positions as he showed dedication. 

In the second half of the trip, this is where we learned more from the exhibition. When Bridges retired, his position was handed to Forten who took over the business and hired over fourty workers of all races, giving opportunities to Americans who were often struggling. 

In 1800, Forten led an organization for Congress to emancipate all slaves through petition. He was further recognized when he published a pamphlet that targeted the Pennsylvania legislature for restricting the immigration of free black slaves. We also learned that Forten and Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, formed the Convention of Color in 1817 where they argued for the migration of free black slaves to Canada, and resisted causes to send free blacks back to the African continent. 

Visitors of the museum explored Forten’s stories through official documents and discovered treasures that proved Forten’s business, his actions as an abolitionist, and the cross-relationships between the Forten Family. 

Overall, the trip was very immersive and reminded me of the importance of black history and highlighting figures that often go unheard.