Big Idea 5: The Forten Family: Abolitionists and Reformers
In the early 1800s, James Forten and his family lived in Philadelphia at time when the majority of people of African descent in Pennsylvania were free, but the laws of the state and nation still did not allow them equal opportunities. For Black Americans, education was difficult to obtain, voting rights were limited, and slavery still existed in many parts of the nation, including Pennsylvania. James Forten’s dream of a nation free from racial distinctions, where Americans of African descent enjoyed the same rights and had the same opportunities as white Americans, was far from a reality at the time of his death in 1842.
The Forten family felt it was their duty as an elite family of African descent to not take their position for granted and to use their influence to encourage the nation to change. They used their wealth, education, and writing talents to advance their vision of a country where all people are free and have equal rights. They became leaders in movements for education, suffrage, and abolition, and were generous philanthropists.
James Forten had a vision of children of all races in the same classroom, forming friendships and learning together. He and his family saw education as a way to improve the overall community in Philadelphia and the nation. The Forten family supported public education and higher learning for Philadelphia’s Black community. In 1818, Philadelphia began a public school system in which children of African descent were not admitted, even though many of their parents paid taxes. In response, that same year, James Forten and others organized the Augustine Education Society to improve the prospects for children of African descent. This organization helped to support the opening of the first tax-supported school for children of African descent in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the school was not as successful as Forten had hoped. Facilities were not equal to the schools for white students, classes were overcrowded, and teachers unprepared.
James Forten and Charlotte Vandine Forten wanted more for their children. In 1819, they worked with fellow African Americans Robert Douglass and Grace Bustill Douglass to start a school of their own for the children of both families, as well as some of their other friends. The Forten daughters attended this school until their midteens and then had tutors at home for music and French. The Forten sons also attended this school and then went to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s Clarkson School.
Philadelphia did not have publicly funded schools for Black children until 1822. At the time, the private academies in the city did not admit students of African descent. Only a few charity schools offered basic education for children of African descent, and these were often costly. The Lombard Street School located near the Forten’s home originally only educated white children. When it moved to a new building in 1828, students of African descent enrolled at the old location, which became the only public grammar school for children of African descent in Philadelphia. James Forten’s daughter, Margaretta, worked as a teacher at the school. The Lombard Street School was crowded and rundown and in the 1830s, the city’s board of education planned to close it by 1840. James Forten convinced the board to keep the school open and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, as well as a diverse group of community leaders, supported the school through the 1890s. It was later renamed the James Forten Elementary School in 1892.
James Forten also believed that people of African descent deserved access to higher learning. His son William Deas Forten attended the Oneida Institute in Whitesboro, New York, to learn a wide range of skilled trades while also receiving a classical education. William’s classmates included several young men of African descent who would go on to play prominent roles in the antislavery movement. When the Institute seemed like it might close for lack of funds, James Forten and Robert Purvis (Forten’s son-in-law) established a scholarship that provided ten years of free tuition and boarding for deserving students of African descent.
Right to Vote
The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790, which was in effect for most of James Forten’s adult life, stated that any taxpaying “freeman of the age of twenty-one years” had the right to vote. There was no mention of race, but all women were excluded from voting. Opinions differed, though, on the meaning of the term “freeman.” Some state lawmakers said that the term only applied to white men. Others defined it more openly to include free men “of every description.” Therefore, voting rights remained unclear and were left to the discretion of local officials, causing voting policies to vary greatly from county to county. In Philadelphia, the county with the largest Black population, the city government refused to assess many people of African descent for the purpose of taxation, thereby denying them the right to vote.
During the 1830s, the question of voter eligibility in the state took on major importance as hostility towards people of African descent increased. Those who pushed for voting rights argued that there were Black citizens who were educated and wealthy, like James Forten, and who had a vested interest in community and national affairs. But most people still felt that men of African descent should not be able to vote. Politicians from Pennsylvania considered the issue in 1837 when a convention was held to propose amendments to the state constitution. They suggested a clause limiting the right to vote to white males. People of African descent quickly took action and met in the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The participants appointed a committee that included James Forten’s son, Robert Bridges Forten, and his son-in-law, Robert Purvis, to prepare an appeal to the voters.
The committee produced a pamphlet entitled Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disenfranchisement to the People of Pennsylvania, which urged the people of Pennsylvania to reject the new voting law, warning that if people of African descent were deprived of the right to vote, a dangerous precedent would be established for all. In the pamphlet, they highlighted the heroism of people of African descent in the Revolutionary War and while they did not mention James Forten by name, they wrote about men of African descent who had endured the horrors of a British prison ship for the liberty of their country, like Forten had done. The appeal concluded with a denial of the stereotype that people of African descent were disruptive to society, instead arguing that they were an asset to the city and state. James Forten spoke out in support of this pamphlet and might have paid for it to be printed.
The appeal was distributed among the voters of the state but it did not help. In October of 1838, the constitutional changes were approved by the people of Pennsylvania, limiting the right to vote to white men only. Despite this setback, James Forten’s family and the Black community did not lose hope. They continued to keep the issue alive through conventions and public meetings where they organized petitions to state legislatures. At the first statewide convention of Black Pennsylvanians, held in Pittsburgh in August 1841, the delegates directed resolutions to the state’s political leaders, calling for an elimination of the discriminatory suffrage requirements. However, change did not come in Pennsylvania until after the Civil War, with the 15th Amendment (1870) to the United States Constitution, which said that no American could be denied the right to vote on the basis of race.
Did You Know?
Historians do not know if James Forten ever voted. But we do know that he did participate in the political process, even if indirectly. As an employer of white men who could vote, Forten felt justified in telling his workers who they should vote for, often accompanying them to the polling stations. In this way, he might have indirectly cast many more votes than he could have cast on his own.
During the 1830s and 1840s, the push to end slavery was at the center of the Forten family’s life. They attended meetings and became leaders of antislavery organizations, while helping fund abolitionist journals and organizations. The cause to end slavery was part of their everyday life as the family entertained abolitionists in their home on Lombard Street.
Fighting Against Colonization
In 1816, a group of prominent white men, the majority of which were slave owners, established the American Colonization Society (ACS). The organization’s main goal was to establish a plan to settle free people of African descent on the west coast of Africa, separating them from the racial oppression in America. They also hoped to establish Christianity and stimulate trade between Africa and America.
The idea of colonization interested Quaker reformers, including Paul Cuffe, a business associate of James Forten who was of African descent and made his fortune through shipping. Cuffe was convinced it would be better for free people of African descent to relocate to Africa, believing they would never receive full equality in the United States. James Forten, Richard Allen, and other leaders of Philadelphia’s Black community initially considered the benefits of colonization and even began advocating for it within the city.
The issue came to a head in Philadelphia at a meeting held at Richard Allen’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. James Forten himself presided over the meeting and called for a vote on whether the Black community should or should not support colonization. According to Forten, the attendees joined together and shook the church walls with one “long, loud” and “tremendous no.” James Forten wrote to Paul Cuffe after the meeting: “Three thousand at least attended, and there was not one soul that was in favor of going to Africa.” Hearing the Black community speak their mind so strongly against colonization caused James Forten to change his opinion. Afterwards, he became a leading opponent of colonization, believing that people of African descent deserved to enjoy the same freedoms as white people in the United States, their home.
William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator
James Forten had little in common with William Lloyd Garrison, a young white abolitionist from Massachusetts, except for a passionate commitment to end slavery. The two formed a close bond that benefited them both. Their cross-racial relationship helped to establish what would become the most widely circulated anti-slavery newspaper in the United States, The Liberator.
Forten and Garrison met around 1830, probably in Philadelphia when Garrison was in the city delivering anti-slavery lectures. Garrison shared his plans to establish his own abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and Forten immediately provided generous monetary support. Forten hoped Garrison’s publication would spread the message about the evils of slavery and encourage more people to join the abolitionist cause. In addition to money, Forten found new subscribers in Philadelphia to increase circulation and met with Philadelphia’s Black community to endorse the paper.
In return, The Liberator gave Forten an outlet for his opinions. He wrote letters to the paper under the name “A Coloured Philadelphian.” Forten often wrote about prejudice against people of African descent, abolition, and opposition to the American Colonization Society (ACS). The Forten family also routinely contributed essays and poems to The Liberator. James Forten’s daughter Sarah contributed a moving poem titled “The Grave of the Slave” in 1831 which called attention to the sorrow and hardships of enslaved people.
American Anti-Slavery Society
Despite his many years of cooperation with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, James Forten was never invited to become a member, because it was an all-white society. William Lloyd Garrison, with support from the Forten family, spearheaded the creation of a national-scale organization dedicated to ending slavery. In December of 1833, 62 delegates (three of African descent) met in Philadelphia. They formed the American Anti-Slavery Society with the goal of immediate freedom for all enslaved people, rejecting plans for gradual emancipation and colonization. They created a document called the “Declaration of Sentiments” and Robert Purvis, James Forten’s son-in-law, was one of three men of African descent to sign the document. The following year, James Forten was elected as vice president. For the first time, the Society gave the Forten family and their allies a nationalscale organization through which they could spread their message. In later years, James Forten would continue his fight against slavery, participating in the National Negro Convention Movement.
The Forten Women and Abolition
The Forten women also became involved in the cause to end slavery, pushing themselves beyond the traditional roles of women as wives and mothers by taking political action. James Forten’s wife, Charlotte Vandine Forten, alongside three of their daughters - Margaretta, Sarah, and Harriet - helped establish the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS) in 1833. Since other abolitionist organizations barred women from becoming members, the society provided an outlet for them to join with like-minded women of African descent alongside white women.
The PFASS was dedicated to showing the people of Philadelphia the “injustice and deep sin of slavery” while also combatting racial prejudice toward free people of African descent. Referring to the Bible and the Declaration of Independence as the foundations for its message, the PFASS took action by petitioning Congress, hosting fundraising fairs, and providing support to freedom-seeking people.
Transforming American SocietyIn the last years of his life, James Forten turned his focus to transforming American society beyond the abolition of slavery. The American Moral Reform Society was founded by James Forten, Robert Purvis, and William Whipper. Forten was the figurehead of the society committed to the principles of education, temperance, and equal opportunities for all Americans, not just people of African descent.
James Forten’s vision of a country that provided freedom for all and equal opportunity for people of African descent did not come to fruition during his lifetime. Slavery persisted, even in Pennsylvania, and people of African descent faced racial discrimination as they sought educational opportunities and tried to exercise their citizenship. Despite this, James Forten never stopped working for the causes of education, abolition, and the betterment of society. Throughout the next decades, his family continued to fight passionately for these causes. We continue to push for some of them today. How do you think the nation can be a better place for all? What kind of changes might be necessary to achieve this?