Big Idea 7: Continuing the Forten Family Legacy
James Forten died on March 4, 1842, at the age of 75, after a battle with an illness. His funeral was the largest for a man of African descent in Philadelphia up to that point. The church was filled to capacity and perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 people of African descent and white mourners came to pay their respects. James Forten did not live long enough to witness the nation torn apart by the Civil War or to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States. But his children and grandchildren did. And in their different ways, the Forten family kept his spirit alive by pushing to make the city of Philadelphia and the country a better place for people of African descent.
The story of James Forten and his family is not as well-known today as the stories of other people of African descent who lived during their lifetimes,such as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. But more and more people are learning about the Forten family’s story through the writings of historians and exhibits such as Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia at the Museum of the American Revolution.
The Forten Children
When James Forten died in 1842, his family did not stop working towards abolition and racial equality. James Forten’s children grew up hearing their father and his friends speak of the injustice of slavery and the inequality faced by people of African descent. Now, it was their turn to take an active role in advocating for the ideals their father fought for — abolition, the right to education, and protection from discrimination. But this was not always easy for Forten’s children. There was a pressure to live up to his example, as many in the Black community looked to the Forten family for support, leadership, and guidance. The Forten children were educated and wealthy and it was expected that they would improve on their father’s legacy.
Charlotte Vandine Forten, Forten’s wife and the matriarch of the family, lived until the age of 99. She and three of her daughters, Margaretta, Harriet, and Sarah were the co-founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, one of the first abolitionist societies led by women. This society was an example of interracial cooperation, with both white and Black women becoming members. In addition to their anti-slavery work, Forten’s daughters used their position in society to advance the causes of education, and equal treatment of people of African descent.
Margaretta organized boycotts of goods made by enslaved people and formed her own grammar school in 1850 to help educate people of African descent. Harriet attended anti-slavery conventions and supported a movement to end segregation on Philadelphia’s streetcars. She and her husband, fellow abolitionist Robert Purvis, used their home in Philadelphia as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Sarah advocated for the education of women of African descent as a member of the Female Literary Association. She wrote essays and poems about the evils of slavery which were published in The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper.
James Forten’s sons also advanced his legacy in many ways. Both James Forten, Jr., his oldest son, and Robert Bridges Forten, his second oldest son, took over the sail-making business while playing important roles in the abolitionist community. James Forten, Jr., was a member of the Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia and also the recording secretary for the American Moral Reform Society. Robert Bridges Forten was a noted speaker, using strong language to encourage action. In his first public speech, he labeled prejudice a “monster” and “one of the greatest evils that can take possession of the human breast.” William Deas Forten, the youngest son of James Forten and Charlotte Vandine Forten, was both a community leader and reformer. He pushed for citizenship for people of African descent and worked to find legal help for those who were affected by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
The Civil War and Opportunities
The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 tore the nation apart, but the conflict was an opportunity for the Forten family to advance the causes they believed in. They put their full support behind the Union, hoping the war would end slavery in the United States and advance the nation’s commitment to equality.
Robert Bridges Forten
At the age of 51, James Forten’s second oldest son, Robert Bridges Forten, enlisted in the 43rd Regiment of United States Colored Troops, which was primarily raised in the Philadelphia area. Because of his education, age, and speaking skills, Forten was appointed the sergeant major of the 43rd Regiment. The sergeant major was the heart of the regiment, being the senior-most enlisted man who served as a model for his fellow soldiers. While recruiting more soldiers in Maryland and training others, Forten fell ill and took leave from the army. He died soon after in his family’s home on Lombard Street. His funeral was the first ever military funeral for a Black man in Philadelphia.
William Deas Forten
The youngest child of James Forten and Charlotte Vandine Forten, William Deas Forten helped to lead the recruitment effort for the regiments of United States Colored Troops forming in Philadelphia. Forten, along with Frederick Douglass, Octavius Catto, and Anna E. Dickinson, organized rallies, published recruitment broadsides, and sponsored lectures. One recruitment statement signed by William Deas Forten called on Black men to “strike now, and you are henceforth and forever Freemen!”
Charles Burleigh Purvis
James Forten’s grandson, the son of Harriet Davy Forten Purvis and Robert Purvis, helped nurse recently freed people back to health. In 1864, Charles Purvis started working as a nurse in the Union Army and was stationed at Camp Barker in Washington, DC. Camp Barker served as a centralized place for formerly enslaved people from the South who had fled to the Union Army in the hopes of obtaining their freedom. At the end of the war in 1865, Purvis was commissioned as an assistant surgeon in the Union Army and took care of recently freed people in the nation’s capital. He was later appointed to be the assistant surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, the first hospital built to treat formerly enslaved people. Throughout his life, Charles Burleigh Purvis pushed for equal rights for women and people of African descent, especially in the medical field, ensuring access to medical care and the opportunity to receive medical training for future doctors.
The spirit of slavery still exists, it must be broken, there are great battles yet to be fought.Charles Burleigh Purvis to Frederick Douglass, June 30, 1889
Charlotte L. Forten
Today, perhaps the most well-known member of Forten’s family is Charlotte L. Forten, James Forten’s granddaughter. She wrote a diary detailing her experiences as a poet, educator, writer, and activist during the Civil War era that has been published multiple times.
When Union forces seized coastal islands south of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861, they captured thousands of enslaved people owned by Southerners. Northern abolitionists supported a plan to privately fund teachers and ministers to provide care and educational opportunities to these people, whom the Union declared to be free. Charlotte L. Forten, at the age of 25, was the only person of African descent hired as part of this plan. Forten and her white abolitionist colleagues provided schooling and education to the men and women as they transitioned from slavery to freedom. Forten spent two years on the islands helping those in need.
Reconstruction and Constitutional Change
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States Government tried to rebuild and “reconstruct” the nation. The chief tasks were to bring the former Confederate states back into the union and to assist over 4,000,000 formerly enslaved people in their transition to freedom. Three amendments to the United States Constitution finally brought changes to the nation that the Forten family and fellow abolitionists had been fighting for decades. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865 outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude (except as punishment for a crime). The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 guaranteed citizenship for all people born or naturalized (the act of becoming a citizen) in the United States. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870 prohibited the denial of voting rights on the basis of race.
These important amendments, however, did not end the Forten and Purvis families’ commitment to reforming the nation. Women, for example, were still not not legally allowed to vote, and equal access to education, jobs, and other opportunities was not guaranteed for all Americans.
Remembering James Forten
After his death in 1842, abolitionists remembered and celebrated James Forten for his efforts to end slavery and prejudice, as well as his selfless behavior as a person of wealth who had used his fortune to help others. In 1848, the State Convention of Colored Citizens of Pennsylvania ended their meeting by praising James Forten:
“JAMES FORTEN, though dead, his example still lives in the memory and affections of those who knew him. If we imitate his virtues, our influence will dissolve mountains of prejudice.”
- State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Pennsylvania, December 13-14, 1848
Others remembered Forten as an example of someone who fought for the American Revolution’s ideals of liberty and equality. Black journalist Mary Ann Shadd Clay wrote in 1857 of how James Forten, “fresh from the Revolution, gave earnest of his hatred of Slavery and love of liberty.” On the eve of the Civil War, a publication titled the Christian Recorder wrote: “Let the proud historic deeds of James Forten….animate us to place on Record an enduring claim, to the affectionate regard, justice, and humanity of the people of Pennsylvania.” While writing their father’s biography, William Lloyd Garrison’s sons asked Robert Purvis for a portrait of James Forten because of his importance in their father’s story as a strong supporter of the abolitionist movement.
However, as the decades passed, James Forten and his achievements began to fade from memory. New names and advancements in the causes he fought for had taken over the public’s attention. In the headlines were now the names of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois, advocates for justice with new ideas. In addition, Forten’s home on Lombard Street, once used as a meeting place, was sold after Charlotte Vandine Forten’s death in 1884. His sailmaking business was no longer operating, and his children and their families were scattered across the country or had passed away.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, social and political changes taking place in Philadelphia and across the country also led to the fading memory of the Forten family. Politically, neither party saw a reason to campaign for the Black vote, as it was assumed that they would support the Republican party. Therefore, politicians of African descent, like William Deas Forten, were often treated as insignificant in mainstream politics and the press and the public did not focus on them. Socially, new concerns like women’s suffrage and temperance consumed the public’s attention.
However, the Purvis branch of the family refocused its attention on securing civil rights for people of African descent and expanding civil rights for women, especially the right to vote. Robert Purvis and Harriet Davy Forten Purvis, along with two of their children, Charles Burleigh Purvis and Harriet Purvis, aligned themselves with women’s rights leaders like Susan B. Anthony. Robert Purvis openly criticized the 15th Amendment for not giving voting rights to women. His wife and James Forten’s daughter Harriet Davy Forten Purvis also became involved in the movement to desegregate Philadelphia’s streetcars alongside Octavius Catto, an educator and civil rights activist who used civil disobedience in the fight to end segregation (this tactic was later used in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s).
Remembering James Forten Today
What parts of our history do we choose to tell? How do we remember people and events of the past? If you’ve ever seen a historical marker in your community or when traveling to another place, you might have asked yourself these questions. If not, you should! States create these markers to commemorate the events and people of the past, in the locations where the events took place or where the people lived. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a marker recognizing James Forten in 1990 on the site of his family home on Lombard Street in Philadelphia. The marker says, “Wealthy sailmaker who employed multiracial craftsmen, Forten was a leader of the African-American community in Philadelphia and a champion of reform causes. The American Antislavery Society was organized in his house here in 1833.”
Forten’s descendants today are remembering and honoring their famous family members. Atwood “Kip” Forten Jacobs recalls his great-grandmother talking about his ancestor James Forten. Growing up, she told him that James had saved nine people from drowning in the Delaware River, but that was about it. Other family members spoke only briefly about James Forten as a famous businessman. All this changed in 2007, when Jacob’s daughter was assigned a school project to research someone famous. She decided to find information about her famous relative and went to the library. There, they found Julie Winch’s biography on Forten, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. The family contacted Winch and they have been corresponding with her ever since.
Kip Jacobs and Julie Winch finally met in person at the Museum of the American Revolution in 2022 to help plan for the Museum’s exhibit, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia. Jacobs brought an important artifact that he is lending to the museum for the exhibit: a Bible used to record the Forten family’s history. This historic Bible first belonged to Jane Vogelsang Forten, the wife of James Forten, Jr. and daughter-in-law of James Forten, and was given to her in 1839. Over two centuries, this Forten family heirloom has linked generations together with dates of births, marriages, and deaths. The current owner, Kip Jacobs (Jane Vogelsang Forten’s great-great-great-grandson) has added himself and his daughter to the family record pages.
James Forten and his family are remembered in various ways today. You can read several children’s books about James Forten as well as Winch’s detailed biography of his life. In 2014, a ceremony at Eden Cemetery just outside of Philadelphia installed a new gravestone to honor him. In South Philadelphia, a street will soon be named Forten Street in his honor. There is a full-length biography of Robert Purvis, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis by Margaret Hope Bacon. James Forten’s granddaughter, Charlotte L. Forten wrote a journal of her experiences during the Civil War and the years that followed. She has also been featured in several children’s books.
What are some other ways we can remember James Forten and others who have been forgotten in our history? Perhaps there is a story from your own family history waiting to be told. How can you help share it with others?