Big Idea 6: Elder James Forten's World
James Forten and his wife Charlotte made Philadelphia their home, raising nine children in their house on Lombard Street. The Forten children and grandchildren knew a Philadelphia much different from the one James Forten experienced during his youth before the Revolutionary War. Industrialization, new transportation options, and migration transformed Philadelphia in the first half of the 1800s. In this vibrant city, the Forten family experienced both joyous and challenging times as they worked to make the city a better place for people of African descent and helped to create the ties that bound Philadelphia’s Black community together.
Philadelphia: A Changing City
By the middle of the 1800s, Philadelphia was the second largest city in the country after New York. The city’s economy was mainly based around trade and shipping, much like it was before the Revolutionary War. Philadelphia’s merchants thrived under their new ability to trade freely and legally beyond the British Empire. Trade between the United States and France increased greatly, as did trade with other places both near and far, like Holland, Germany, Russia, and China. Philadelphia’s prosperous trade was greatly enhanced by new and improved roads, canals, and railroads that linked Philadelphia with the rest of the nation, expanding the reach of the city’s businesses.
Visitors to the wharfs by the Delaware River were able to find a vast number of imports from around the world. There were cargos of cotton, rice, oils, coffee, rum, linen, toys, spices, wine, and brandy to name a few. Philadelphia also exported goods to other parts of the nation and internationally, especially to Mexico, Cuba, and England. American-made ships, many from Philadelphia, carried flour, whiskey, wheat, bacon, textiles, and lumber made in the city and surrounding regions.
Philadelphia was home to a growing workforce that made a variety of goods. The city was an important producer of textiles, especially woven carpets and fine clothing. In other industries, Philadelphians were known as excellent manufacturers of specialty products like horse-drawn carriages, fire engines, and chandeliers. The media industry also began to thrive in the city as newspaper production was improved by new ways of printing and processing paper. Philadelphia’s first “penny paper” was called the Public Ledger. It was founded in 1836 and cost one cent. Since this newspaper was affordable, more people were aware of what was going on in the city, the nation, and the world. All of these growing industries required a workforce, and the city became a place where work was readily available. Philadelphia was home to so many workers that it also became a leading force in the formation of labor unions.
The economy was also helped by growth in real estate during the 1820s and the decades that followed. Factories were built on the Delaware River and residential streets expanded westwards. Architects and builders created handsome brick houses for the middle class that were three or four stories high. Smaller homes and apartments built for the working class were often constructed with cheaper materials. Stores and shops were built to provide services for the new residents. This growth in real estate created new communities and villages that would, over time, become a part of the city of Philadelphia.
Tourism was also boosted alongside this increase in economic activity. Many people came to Philadelphia for its attractions, fine dining, and luxurious hotels. Black caterers, such as Robert Bogle, impressed diners with exotic dishes like oyster pies and hogs head trimmed with jelly. Tourists enjoyed visiting attractions such as Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum, the Ricketts’s Circus, and theatrical performances at various venues across the city.
Philadelphia always had a diverse population and this trend continued during the early decades of the 1800s. A wave of immigration swept the nation during the 1820s and 1830s, bringing people from many different countries to the cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland, bringing their cultures with them. These new arrivals to Philadelphia made up about 10% of all immigrants coming to America. On the streets of the city, one would have seen people of many races and heard African, European, and Native American languages and dialects spoken on the streets.
Philadelphia's Black Community
Philadelphia’s Black community changed dramatically in the decades after the Revolutionary War. In the year 1790, more than 2,000 people of African descent (including 273 enslaved people) lived in Philadelphia. Thirty years later, in 1820, over 12,000 Black people called the city home and none of them were enslaved. They represented roughly 10% of the city’s population overall and up to 30-40% in the center of the city. By 1840 there were about 20,000 free Black people in the city of Philadelphia and most were born in the United States or the Caribbean.
Concentrated around today’s South Street, then known as Cedar Street, Black men and women worked, started businesses, founded churches, and raised families as part of a supportive, established Black community. These communities included wealthy families, such as the Fortens, middle class families who worked as waiters, porters and nurses, and lower income families and individuals, including sailors, laborers, and street vendors. Joining the families who had lived free in Philadelphia for — in some cases — over four generations were recently freed people from other states. Most came from the Upper South (Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware), where these individuals had escaped from slavery, purchased their own freedom, or been granted their freedom from owners who had become conscious of the immorality of slavery. Newly-freed people saw Philadelphia as a safe place. A number of anti-slavery groups, such as the Vigilant Committee, were founded specifically to provide aid to the freedom-seekers who were arriving in Philadelphia on a daily basis. By the middle of the 1800s, thousands of freedom-seekers came through Philadelphia and the Black community helped them to stay and live in Philadelphia or continue moving north.
Philadelphia offered a vast range of employment opportunities for the Black community. A large number worked as cooks and waiters in Philadelphia’s thriving catering industry. In 1838, about 300 people of African descent worked for themselves as musicians, dressmakers, teachers, hairdressers or shoe makers, to name a few. These occupations offered stability and gave people more control over their lives. In contrast, many male laborers worked digging ditches, sawing lumber, or cleaning chimneys and city streets. These jobs were very physically demanding and provided little job security, since men were often hired as daily workers instead of for long-term jobs. As a result, labor societies were formed to help in obtaining better wages and working conditions.
Many women of African descent were entrepreneurs in various ways to support their families. They worked in the homes of white families as housekeepers and caretakers for children. Some women brought their work home by becoming laundresses, washerwomen, or seamstresses. These positions were poorly paid, but they allowed women to work at home while caring for their own children. Other women of African descent worked as street vendors selling a wide range of homemade foods, from pepper-pot soup to ginger-cakes and candies. A few Black women worked as teachers in schools run by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society or other charitable groups.
Regardless of who was teaching, education was very important to Philadelphia’s Black community. Its members worked with city leaders of different races to push for more educational opportunities for children of African descent. According to a census taken in 1838, approximately 60% of children in the Black community attended the 23 schools in the city, many of which were completely Black-founded and run. Some Black leaders funded and established their own schools for children of African descent. Around 1827, for example, Sarah Mapps Douglass founded a school for the education of young girls.
The country’s first Black school for higher education, the Institute for Colored Youth, was founded in Philadelphia in 1837 by a white Quaker named Richard Humphreys. Humphreys believed that the conditions faced by people of African descent violated his beliefs in equality and thought that educational opportunities would improve those conditions. Many of the graduates from the Institute for Colored Youth became important leaders in the abolition movement. In 1914, the school relocated to Delaware County, Pennsylvania. It adopted its current name, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, in 1983.
As Philadelphia’s Black population grew, churches continued to be the center of the community. In addition to the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, led by Absalom Jones, and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, led by Richard Allen, Black Philadelphians constructed other churches throughout the city, including Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian denominations. By 1837, they had added up to 16 distinct churches. These churches provided a welcoming space for community members to seek support, attend classes, form organizations, and gather for meals. Churches were also often used as meeting places for a variety of social networks called beneficial societies. These societies would meet for various reasons. Some were groups of artists and musicians. Others were literary societies. About 7,000 free Black Philadelphians organized into about 80 Beneficial Societies during this period.
Did You Know?
The Pennsylvania Abolition Society conducted a census of Philadelphia’s Black community in 1838. It included questions about occupations, wealth, real estate, education, social networks, family members, and how people had transitioned from enslavement to freedom, if they had not been born free. All of this information was connected to names and specific addresses.
James Forten in Philadelphia: Lifting Up His Community
James Forten raised his family in Philadelphia, where he was a prominent leader and an active voice in local politics. He hoped to demonstrate that people of African descent were important contributors to the city. In some ways, Philadelphia in the later part of Forten’s life was a less welcoming place than in previous decades and people of African descent sometimes experienced more prejudice and violence. Some white Philadelphians did not consider people of African descent equal and treated them poorly. In 1840, the directors of Charles Willson Peale’s Museum denied Forten the opportunity to invest in the museum because it would have put him on more equal terms with them. Forten himself discouraged the creation of an African American fire company due to fears that white fire companies would retaliate with violence or ignore fires that threatened Black homes. This fear was based on what Forten had witnessed within his own life.
The Forten family was personally affected by the violence directed towards people of African descent. On August 9, 1834, James Forten’s young son was attacked by a gang of over 50 men as he returned home. This random act of violence was an example of racial tensions building in the city. Three days later, a riot occurred at the Flying Horses Carousel, an amusement attraction popular with people of all backgrounds in Philadelphia. According to a French writer who witnessed the event, it was caused by pro-slavery groups. The riot resulted in the destruction of the First African Presbyterian Church and over 30 homes of people of African descent.
The violence in the city increased during the last years of James Forten’s life. Between 1828 and 1849, Philadelphia experienced five major race riots that destroyed Black homes, businesses, and abolitionist halls. Built and funded by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and the Black community as a meeting place, Pennsylvania Hall was burnt to the ground by anti-abolitionist mobs only four days after it opened in 1838. As violence shook Philadelphia, the rights and liberties of free people of African descent became less secure.
Despite this hostility and violence, the Forten family was determined to help the Black community advance. Much of Forten’s free time and money went to charitable causes, such as the Friendly Society of St. Thomas (founded at Forten’s church), which raised funds to assist widows, orphans, and sick members of the Black community. He donated $500 to the Washington Benevolent Society of Philadelphia, which also supported widows, orphans, and the poor. Forten was one of few Black Philadelphians who could afford to make such a sizable donation. Because of his reputation as an honest businessman, community members came to Forten for advice, loans, and assistance in writing their wills and business plans.
Forten’s fine home on Lombard Street reflected the family’s success, but also served as a base of operations to support local and national efforts to end slavery. White leaders of the community joined the Forten family around the table in discussions about improving the neighborhood. They were part of the constant stream of guests visiting the home: politicians, religious leaders, reformers, writers, and abolitionists. When the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Philadelphia in 1833 by James Forten, Robert Purvis, and prominent white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, members used Forten’s home on Lombard Street to discuss establishing such a society.
Forten’s home was also a place where advocates of both races worked together to advance the rights and education for people of African descent. For example, in 1832, white Quaker teacher Prudence Crandall visited Philadelphia after she was scorned for admitting a young girl of African descent to her school in Connecticut. Forten and his family and friends welcomed her into Forten’s home and encouraged her to open a school for children of African descent in Philadelphia. Although the school was never opened due to divisions within the abolitionist community, Crandall was able to openly discuss her challenges with the Forten family. She, and many others, were thankful for their gracious advice and support.
James Forten experienced a different Philadelphia in his adult years than he had in his youth before the Revolutionary War. Throughout its changes, he made this diverse city his home, where he raised his family and fought to advance the rights of people of African descent and end slavery. When Forten died in 1842, his funeral was one of the largest ever witnessed in Philadelphia. Several thousand people of African descent and hundreds of white Philadelphians paid tribute to the man who did so much for their city. He left behind a home, a successful business, and a large family determined to keep his legacy of justice and equality alive. How can you contribute to making your community a better place for everyone?