Forten, James(1766–1842) sailmaker, social activist; born in Philadelphia. A free African-American, he joined the Continental navy at age 15 and was among those taken prisoner when his ship, the Royal Louis, was captured by the British. After being released, he returned to Philadelphia and was apprenticed to sailmaker Robert Bridges. By 1786 Forten was a foreman there and in 1798, when Bridges died, he took over control of the sail loft; he became wealthy and was a leader of the black community of Philadelphia. In 1814 he helped enlist 2,500 African-American volunteers to protect Philadelphia during the War of 1812. Active in promoting temperance and peace, he devoted much energy and money to abolishing slavery and gaining the civil rights of African-Americans: he opposed the American Colonization Society and its plans to send blacks out of the U.S.; he provided financial support to William Lloyd Garrison's paper, The Liberator; and he refused rigging to slave-trade vessels. Although all but forgotten in ensuing decades, he was arguably the most extraordinary African-American of his era.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.