Question of the Week
A century before Martin Luther King, what Philadelphia social rights activist fought for the abolition of slavery?
Answer: James Forten
A century before Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for civil rights in the 1960s, a social activist named James Forten fought for the abolition of slavery during the early 1800s. James Forten was born in Philadelphia in 1766. He attended the Friends’ African School for a time, but dropped out shortly after his father’s death to help his family. As a young teenager he joined the Continental Navy, and, for a time, he served on the privateer Royal Louis. (Royal Louis was later captured by the British ship Jersey and Forten survived the ordeal unscathed.)
Forten eventually returned to Philadelphia where he made a name for himself as a sail-maker. His success in the trade led him to buy the sail loft for which he worked. This profitable venture made Forten one of the richest men of the city.
As a successful and free Black man, Forten saw that abolition of slavery as one of his personal responsibilities. He authored Letters from a Man of Color, which was anonymously released as a pamphlet in 1813. He later wrote for and supported abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator. He helped both Garrison and Robert Purvis form the American Anti-Slavery Society. And he worked against the motives of the American Colonization Society, which he believed was formed simply to send enslaved people back to Africa. Forten died in Philadelphia in 1842, survived by a wife and eight children.
About the Author
Look for these history stories every Sunday in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The stories, called Memory Stream, are published in the Currents section of the newspaper.