Big Idea 4: James Forten and Entrepreneurs of African Descent
James Forten was one of the most successful businessmen and one of the wealthiest African Americans in Philadelphia during the early 1800s. His sailmaking business supplied ship builders with quality sails and he employed a diverse workforce that included white and African American men and teens, as well as recent immigrants to Philadelphia. Like other businessmen during the 1800s and today, Forten struggled with the ins and outs of running a company. Forten, as a person of African descent, also had to deal with racially prejudiced people who questioned his ability to run a business. However, Forten and other people of African descent managed to overcome many challenges, proving successful at a time when most people did not consider them equal.
James Forten Becomes an Entrepreneur
In 1785, James Forten returned to Philadelphia from a year in London and immediately looked for work to help support his family. He approached his father’s past employer, Robert Bridges. Bridges owned a successful company, making and repairing sails for the many ship builders in Philadelphia and for vessels that arrived at the port city. Bridges had remembered Forten from the time he spent alongside his father in the sail loft. He knew him to be reliable, friendly, and a hard worker. Bridges hired Forten to be his apprentice. Shortly afterwards, Forten was promoted to foreman. With the support of Robert Bridges, Forten was able to learn the ins and outs of the sailmaking trade. He learned where to purchase the best quality supplies, from ropes to canvas. He mastered the art of measuring sailcloth and how to cut it. He also learned how to design sails to fit various sizes of ships based on how long they planned to remain at sea and what weather conditions the ship might encounter.
Learning how to make sails was an important trade at the time. Sailmaking was essential to Philadelphia’s existence as a port city. In 1800, nearly 1,000 ships entered the port of Philadelphia from American and overseas locations. Exports from the city reached new heights in 1806 and 1807. Without good sails, commerce would be halted and the city would suffer. Learning this trade at this place and time would be extremely important to Forten’s future success.
Forten worked alongside Bridges for 13 years. Their partnership benefited them both. Besides helping him learn the trade, Bridges introduced Forten to the merchants who sold materials and to ship-owners. Forten developed leadership skills as he helped manage the employees in the loft. Forten, in return, shared his sailing experiences. Based upon his time serving on a privateer ship during the Revolutionary War and his trip to London after the war, Forten described how sails performed in various weather conditions and while in battle.
Such real-world experience helped Robert Bridges create a high-performance product. In 1798, Robert Bridges decided to retire and considered who would take over his growing business. Bridges had eight children, but he had dreams that his sons would become successful merchants, doctors, or lawyers instead of taking over his sail loft. It made sense to him that James Forten would take over the business, having earned Bridges’ trust as a faithful and hardworking foreman. In an act of confidence in Forten’s abilities, Bridges left the business to Forten when he retired. The sailmaking business remained under Forten’s ownership until his death in 1842, when two of Forten’s sons took over the operation.
When deciding to give his business to Forten, Bridges might have considered how people would react to a man of African descent taking over an established business. Would the business be able to retain its customers? Would the employees remain? What would the community think?
James Forten became one of the few Black business owners in Philadelphia when he took over Robert Bridges’s sailmaking company in 1798. Forten found himself at the head of one of the city’s most successful sail lofts, organizing a workforce of several dozen men, and running a business worth thousands of dollars a year. With the future of the sail loft in question, Forten’s reputation as an honest and hard worker proved extremely valuable. Another important factor in ensuring the success of the sail loft was the support of a company called Willing & Francis, which owned many ships and continued to give their business to Forten.
You know I am a man of business, and have not always time at my disposal.James Forten to William Lloyd Garrison, July 28, 1832
The fact that a man of African descent presided over a racially integrated workforce of around 30 men was a rarity in the United States at the time and many were amazed by Forten’s ability to run a profitable business. Visitors to his sail loft were often surprised to see African American and white men working side-by-side. Forten felt this was an important step not only for the Philadelphia business community but for the country, envisioning a future American society that would operate peacefully with people of different races working alongside each other. According to one visitor: “[B]oth colors had thus been employed together for more than 20 years, and always with the same peace and harmony.... ‘Here,’ said [Forten], ‘you see what ... ought to be done in our country at large.’” While many people at the time were uncomfortable with the idea of a Black business owner, Forten’s integrated workforce and sound business practices challenged prejudices.
In addition to facing prejudice, Forten dealt with other difficulties. Politically, some did not consider Forten to be a citizen of Pennsylvania and the country. It is unclear if Forten ever voted, and opinions at the time differed on whether he and other Black men in Pennsylvania had the right to vote. But Forten may have encouraged his white employees to vote and told them who to cast a ballot for. In this way, Forten was politically active, even though he himself did not vote for candidates whose policies affected his business.
Economically, Forten’s business was tied to the port of Philadelphia and his business was affected by the ups and downs of the city’s finances. The Philadelphia economy was greatly affected by President Thomas Jefferson’s trade embargo in 1807, which brought a temporary end to overseas trade. This embargo hurt owners of ships, who then had no need to purchase Forten’s sails while their ships stayed at port. The War of 1812 against Great Britain also posed challenges, including a blockade of Philadelphia’s port. Forten’s business also overcame the panic of 1819, which led to the bankruptcies of many individuals and businesses. In addition, Philadelphia was no longer the state or federal capital and businesses lost many customers who worked for the government. By 1815, New York City was surpassing Philadelphia in size and economic importance. Despite these numerous obstacles, Forten’s sail loft continued to thrive.
As with many business leaders today, Forten used his money to make more money. He did not like his money to remain sitting in a bank and looked for various ways to invest. With his business thriving, Forten was able to expand his interests beyond the sail loft. He provided loans with interest to people who wished to buy businesses or homes. He bought stocks in railroads, banks, insurance companies, and the building of canals. He bought houses and rented out rooms to individuals and bought buildings to rent to businesses. He used the profits from these endeavors in the fight to end slavery, fund abolitionist publications, advance Philadelphia’s Black community, and create equal opportunities for people of African descent.
James Forten also invested in the youth within his community. Unlike most businessmen at the time, Forten believed in the training of young people of African descent. Forten observed to a friend: “If a man of color has children, it is almost impossible for him to get a trade for them.” He reached out to his family and the Black community to recruit young workers.
Did You Know?
Unfortunately, most of James Forten’s business papers were lost or thrown away. Despite this, historians have been able to piece together parts of his business history thanks to stray records and letters that survived from some of his suppliers, customers, business acquaintances, and family.
Philadelphia's Business Leaders of African Descent
James Forten was only one of many people of African descent who contributed to the Philadelphia business community in the early to mid 1800s. A small but growing number of Black professionals owned businesses and were becoming teachers, clergymen, hairdressers, shoemakers, bakers, tailors, food caterers, carpenters, chimney sweepers, musicians, and artists. In 1811, the city directory listed 81 Black men and women who owned their own businesses and by 1816, the number was 180. Together these men and female entrepreneurs created a Black business community, contributing to the economy of Philadelphia and the country.
In the beginning to the middle of the 1800s, Philadelphia’s upper class looked for ways to make their lives easier. Entrepreneurs of African descent used this opportunity to establish businesses to provide services for them. Arriving in Philadelphia from the West Indies as a free man, Joseph Cassey began his career as a barber. He grew his business by also selling perfume and wigs. With his profits, he invested in real estate to become the second wealthiest person of African descent in the city, after James Forten. Others made their fortune in the food and service industry. Robert Bogle created and cooked fine meals, hired servers, and provided supplies for parties, funerals and weddings. This is what we call catering services today. Bogle is often credited with inventing this industry. Bogle was under such demand that he often provided his services to two or three events on the same day. As a result, Philadelphia became the home to a thriving catering industry run by several free Black families in the city over the next 150 years.
A few Philadelphians of African descent used the arts as a way to make a living. Francis Johnson became the most famous musician in the city after arriving in Philadelphia in 1809 at the age of 17 from Martinique. Johnson was able to master many musical instruments including the keyed bugle, a small horn rarely played today but quite popular at the time. In 1818, Johnson became the first African American composer to have his compositions published as sheet music. He created most of the music for the parades and parties that welcomed the Marquis de Lafayette (a wealthy French military officer who fought in the Revolutionary War and was important aide to George Washington) back to Philadelphia in 1824. His band even played for the Queen of the United Kingdom at Buckingham Palace in 1837! Unfortunately, alongside his fame, Johnson experienced prejudice against him. Often, white bands refused to play at events that he attended, and many people thought Johnson to be a fraud, not believing that musicians of African descent could read sheet music. Despite this, Johnson’s music was an important part of many social gatherings around the city.
Others were involved in multiple trades, often being active in more than one industry. Philadelphia religious leader Richard Allen is known mostly for founding the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. However, he was also an entrepreneur. After he purchased his freedom from slavery in 1780, Allen bought a small plot of land for himself and then bought other pieces of land and buildings to sell them for a profit. While investing in real estate and leading Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Allen also worked in other professions. In one city directory he was listed by several occupations, including shoemaker, store owner, and chimney sweeper. Like many ambitious people today, Allen was able to use his many talents to increase his wealth.
Business Leaders of African Descent throughout the United States
Business leaders of African descent contributed to the growing economy throughout the new nation during the early-middle 1800s. The people discussed below are only several examples of entrepreneurs of African descent during this time.
Born a free person of African descent in Massachusetts before the Revolutionary War, Paul Cuffe made his fortune by building ships and establishing a shipping network. Like other successful businessmen of African descent, he used his money to support the causes he believed in. For Cuffe, this was the creation of a colony in Africa to be settled by people of African descent. Another business leader, William Leidesdorff, also made his fortune in the shipping industry, but on the West Coast. Leidesdorff’s company launched the first steamboat in the San Francisco Bay Area of California in 1847. His wealth grew as he opened the first hotel in San Francisco, where he became the city’s school board president, and an important political leader.
Thomas Jennings started his career as a tailor and then opened a store in New York City selling high-quality clothing. When his customers asked for a better way to clean their expensive clothes, Jennings researched solutions. He found that most of the methods used at the time were ineffective in cleaning the upscale clothes that he sold. Jennings began to experiment with different cleaning solutions and came up with a way to treat stains and clean clothing. The process that he invented is called dry cleaning today, a multi-billion dollar industry!
A small number of women of African descent also became entrepreneurs and community leaders. One such woman, Clara Brown, obtained her freedom at the age of 56 and took a risk by traveling from Virginia to Colorado as a cook on a wagon train in the hopes of finding her daughter. She opened a laundry business during the Colorado Gold Rush (1858-61) which became so successful that she was able to invest in mining and real estate. With her wealth, she opened her home up to those in need. Her house served as a church, hotel, and medical aid facility.
While James Forten made his wealth through his Philadelphia sailmaking business, other people of African descent in the city and around the country were becoming entrepreneurs in a wide range of industries. These business leaders demonstrated that people of African descent were capable of running successful businesses. Business leaders of African descent were able to use their influence and wealth to reinvest in their communities and to support others that did not have the same opportunities that they had. They were able to become industry leaders, even though they were not considered equal citizens by many fellow Americans. How did these business leaders overcome the prejudice they faced? With their success, what responsibility did they have to support their communities? Do business leaders today have the same responsibility?