Read the Revolution
A Gentleman of ColorApril 5, 2023
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In the book that inspired the Museum’s special exhibit, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, Dr. Julie Winch’s A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten details the extraordinary lives of James Forten and his descendants. Drawing on years of extensive research, Winch provides a comprehensive biography of James Forten, a man of African descent who was born free in Philadelphia and who spent his entire life fighting for the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal.”
Although James Forten fought in the Revolutionary War aboard a privateer ship, became a wealthy and respected businessman, spent his life advocating for the rights of people of African descent, and fought to end slavery, his existence as a man of color was, at best, tolerated by his white neighbors. In the 1830s and 1840s, towards the end of Forten’s life, racial violence swept over the fledging country. Philadelphia would experience uprisings and riots targeted at immigrants and people of African descent.
In the following excerpt, Winch argues that Forten knew that the increase in violence was undoubtedly connected to the persistence of slavery in southern states. Even though Pennsylvania had taken steps to abolish slavery within its borders, the ideals of slavery continued elsewhere and helped embolden violence against people of African descent. Forten and his family were not immune from this violence and were targeted on several occasions. Despite this, Forten never gave up fighting for the abolition of slavery. Twenty-three years after his death, the 13th Amendment was passed and ratified by Congress in 1865, officially abolishing slavery in the United States.
What even the most zealous of white abolitionists were inclined to overlook was that freedom from slavery was not synonymous with full citizenship. A black man or woman need not wear a slave’s shackles to be “unfree.” Every day of their lives free people of color grappled with the reality of discrimination. In most states of the Union, the law relegated them to a situation of quasifreedom. They lived in a particular state, but they did not “belong” to it in the same way that their white neighbors did. Their presence was tolerated, nothing more. And as the racial violence that beset so many communities in the 1830s and 1840s made abundantly clear, it was not at all certain that their presence would continue to be tolerated.
James Forten was a perennial manager of the American Anti-Slavery Society. His sons and his son-in-law were officers in that same organization. His wife and daughters helped found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, one of the first women’s abolition societies in the nation. The Fortens and the Purvises regularly entertained the likes of William Lloyd Garrison, Samuel J. May, James and Lucretia Mott, George Thompson, and the Grimke sisters, the white leaders of radical antislavery. They helped sustain antislavery journals, spoke and wrote in support of abolition, and enjoyed an extensive correspondence with abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic. Although they were among the luminaries of the movement, when all was said and done, they lived lives that were severely restricted by law and custom. In the 1830s and early 1840s those restrictions would press ever more tightly upon them. While battling alongside their white allies for freedom for the salves of the South, they were also fighting a war much closer to home. Their white friends knew something of their struggles and would often wish them godspeed, but those struggles were frequently swallowed up in the larger battle to put an end to the South’s “peculiar institution.”
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That his future and the future of his children, his grandchildren, and his entire community were inextricably linked to the persistence of chattel slavery south of the Mason-Dixon line James Forten knew only too well. Remove slavery, he reasoned, and the prejudice of caste would die with it. But in the last decade of his life, he was constantly reminded that so many whites in his home state, a state that had long since taken steps to outlaw slavery, cared little about the continued existence of slavery beyond the borders of Pennsylvania. What they resented was the notion of black people becoming their equals, asserting their rights to “do what the white man can do, and go where the white man can go.” Again and again, James Forten the abolitionist would have to face up to a stark reality. In his native city, the city where he had risen from humble apprentice to successful man of business, the city he had willingly defended in times of crisis, his own freedom was far from secure.
James Forten was no stranger to the depths of white racism. He had witnessed mob violence before. He had read in the press and heard on the streets attacks on black people as lazy, ignorant, and lawless parasites. Despite his optimism about the liberalizing “spirit of the times,” he anticipated more battles before the glorious millennium. As he discovered, the battles of the 1830s would be fiercer and bloodier than anything he had previously experienced.
Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten (Oxford University Press, 2003), 283-284.