Triumphant Lives: The Forten Legacy Fosters Scholarship and Historical Insight
By Dr. Janice L. Sumler-Edmond
Writing is hard work. Luckily, I enjoyed the research and writing phase of my dissertation, the culmination of my doctoral studies at Georgetown University during the 1977-1978 academic year. I chose to write “The Fortens of Philadelphia: An Afro-American Family and Nineteenth-Century Reform” because of their labors to abolish slavery. They also followed the dictates of the Declaration of Independence that ALL people, including people of color like themselves, are created equal and have certain inalienable rights. Following my graduate studies, I have maintained an interest in earlier books about the family members and their Philadelphia community, as well as more recently published writings on the Fortens.
While well-known African Americans like Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, and Phillis Wheatley were the subjects of books during the late 1970s, the Forten family remained largely unknown to readers. Throughout the antebellum period and beyond, the family members exhibited leadership and a dedication to uplifting Philadelphia’s Black community. For example, in 1817, James Forten chaired a large meeting of Black citizens who denounced the American Colonization Society for its attempt to colonize Black people back to Africa. Beginning in the mid-1830s, Forten’s son-in-law, Robert Purvis, led the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee, the city’s link to the Underground Railroad that sheltered enslaved fugitives and helped them reach freedom further North. Fifty years of scholarship on the Forten family, and free people of color more broadly, has led to the Museum of the American Revolution’s 2023 special exhibition, Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia.
With relevant scholarship scarce at the time, two books guided the initial stages of my dissertation research. Dr. Benjamin Quarles wrote Black Abolitionists (1969), which documented the lives and reform activities of free Black men and women. I also consulted Dr. Gerda Lerner’s edited work, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1973). Lerner, a pioneering professor in the field of women’s history, collected letters, speeches, and literary works to convey the importance of Black women authors who wrote during the 18th and 19th centuries. In her preface, Lerner explained that Black people in America had been denied their history. She continued, “[t]he discovery of black history, and its legitimation and acceptance into the body of American history is progress … and has already immensely enriched our knowledge of our national past.”
I remember seeing Lerner at the annual meetings of the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Sometime in 1978 or 1979, I was one of a small group of Black women from the newly formed Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH) invited to meet with OAH representatives. Lerner attended that meeting. There we agreed to work jointly on future projects, and to compile immediately a directory of women historians from both organizations. I see it as a memorable meeting, especially since ABWH had just been formed while OAH had been established 60 years before in 1907.
While drafting my dissertation, my friend Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a history faculty member and colleague of Quarles at Morgan State University in Baltimore, arranged a phone conversation for us. Pleased that I found his book useful for my work, Quarles heartily approved of my dissertation topic. Black Abolitionists emphasized the reform work and the sense of community typically found among the free people of color. When I returned from Washington, D.C., to my assistant professorship in California, I added a unit on free Black people to my course syllabi. Some of my students were surprised to learn that free Black people lived in the United States before the Civil War.
Biographies of Forten’s close friends, such as Captain Paul Cuffe and Bishop Richard Allen, document the strong leadership and the early institution building in the Black communities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Lamont D. Thomas published Paul Cuffe: Black Entrepreneur and Pan-Africanist (1986). Born free in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Cuffe had a Native American mother and an Ashanti father. The owner of several ocean-going ships, Cuffe advocated both emancipation and African colonization for enslaved Black people in the United States. Cuffe also suggested a trans-Atlantic trade relationship between Africans living on the continent of Africa and African Americans. As friends, Cuffe influenced Forten to consider adopting a Black nationalist philosophy, which Forten later rejected.
Students in my African American history classes enjoyed reading Dr. Richard Newman’s book, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, (2008). Newman’s book title was a pleasant surprise. Neither my students nor I could recall another author who labeled Black leaders of the Revolutionary era as “Founding Fathers” of our nation. We found Newman’s arguments convincing. Because their ideas and activities helped Blacks as well as whites during and after the American Revolutionary War, Richard Allen, James Forten, Absalom Jones, and others definitely deserve the title of Founding Fathers of our nation, similar to their white counterparts, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
James Forten and his granddaughter, Charlotte L. Forten, may be the two best known Forten family members. In the 1950s, Esther M. Douty, a biographer for young adult readers, authored books on the same two Forten family members. Douty published Charlotte Forten, Free Black Teacher (1951), which chronicled Forten’s life from the pre-teen years to her adult work of educating Black children on the Sea Islands of South Carolina during the Civil War. Douty’s book on James Forten detailed his career as a sailmaker and his lifelong efforts to secure civil rights for Black people. I had the pleasure of talking with Douty on two occasions. She resided in Washington, D.C., when I attended Georgetown. I was introduced to her at the headquarters of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) where Douty shared her goal to write biographies for young adults of people whose lives could serve as role models.
Award-winning historian and prolific writer Dr. Brenda E. Stevenson published her edited version of The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke in 1988. The book is well-researched and contains a section of editor’s notes. Stevenson’s must-read book shares the inspiring life story of an activist and mission-driven young woman. Charlotte followed her grandfather’s examples as an abolitionist and a civil rights crusader. I met Stevenson soon after she published her edition of the Forten Journals. She teaches at UCLA, my alma mater, and we are both members of ABWH.
In her book, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (2008), historian Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar adeptly untangles the complex ideas, motives, and actions adopted by an elite group of free Black women in antebellum Philadelphia. Dunbar builds a new interpretation by researching Black women’s friendship albums, a newly discovered archive, containing prose and verse that evoked empathy and other sentimentalities. Dunbar’s fresh analysis shows that antislavery action in the 1830s served as an incentive for Black and white women to form the Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society (PFASS). The white women members learned about the racialized lives of their Black colleagues while both Blacks and whites aided the fledgling antislavery movement. By 1840, the PFASS changes included new standards of membership, which elevated immediate emancipation activities while lessening protests to decry racial prejudice. That same year, Sarah Douglass, a Black woman, assumed financial control of her grammar school, breaking ties with PFASS’s patronage. Still devoted to emancipation, the elite Black women of Philadelphia, including members of the Forten family, championed equal rights and opposed issues negatively impacting their class of free Blacks. Dunbar and I are both life members of ABWH; she is its immediate past National Director.
In a recently released PBS documentary on the Museum’s Black Founders exhibit, Dr. Julie Winch, author of A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten, (2002) discussed sail making, explaining that she visited several sailing establishments to better understand the remarkable career of master sailmaker James Forten. She recalled the distinct smell of the lofts, derived from the mixing of cloth, glue, rope, and other products used to construct sails. That film reveals an example of the rich details about the Forten lives found throughout Winch’s book. Over the years I saw Winch at the annual ASALH meetings, and I recall that we chatted briefly about the Forten family. A Gentleman of Color is a well-written book and a worthy tribute to the Forten family and their beloved Philadelphia community down through three generations.
The skilled staff of the Museum of the American Revolution have given us an exhibit on a Black Founder, while simultaneously employing all the writing I have cited above and more. They curated an exhibit detailing the remarkable life and times of James Forten and his nation-building accomplishments. I look forward to viewing future exhibits across our nation that will share important lessons about Black patriots. Lastly, there is still more writing work ahead, especially for the younger generation of scholars. Theirs will be the next opportunities to interpret, to critique, and to celebrate Forten and others of his generation.
About Dr. Janice L. Sumler-Edmond
Dr. Janice L. Sumler-Edmond is the Professor Emerita of United States History, African American History, and Constitutional History and Law at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, where she also served as the director of the W. E. B. DuBois Honors Program. She is the author of The Secret Trust of Aspasia Cruvellier Mirault: The Life and Trials of a Free Woman of Color in Antebellum Georgia (The University of Arkansas Press, 2008), contributed to African Americans in South Texas History edited by Bruce A. Glasrud (Texas A&M University Press, 2011), and co-edited Black Women’s History at the Intersection of Knowledge and Power with Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Tapestry Press, 2000) and Freedom’s Odyssey, African American History Essays from Phylon with Alexa Benson Henderson (Clark Atlanta University Press, 1999). She earned a Ph.D. in American History from Georgetown University and the J.D. degree from the UCLA School of Law. She completed her undergraduate degree and a master's degree, both in the field of history, from UCLA.