Abolitionist of Society Hill

James Forten (1766-1842).

In “Abolitionist’s Dreamland” (September 30, 2011), Jack McCarthy revealed the story of Byberry Hall, the home of noted nineteenth-century abolitionist Robert Purvis (1810-1898), built by him in 1846 to host anti-slavery activities. This house is still standing on the grounds of Byberry Friends Meeting in Far Northeast Philadelphia.

Purvis moved with his family to Byberry Township in 1844, just after another African-American of Philadelphia, James Forten (1766-1842), had completed his remarkable life. Forten lived and labored his entire life in what became known as Society Hill, becoming one of the richest African-Americans in America. He was born free in Philadelphia and was educated in Anthony Benezet’s Quaker-inspired Negro School at Philadelphia.

At the age of 15, Forten served as a powder boy on an American ship during the Revolutionary War and spent seven months on a British prison ship after being captured. Post-war, he was apprenticed to Robert Bridges, a sailmaker who had a sail loft on a wharf at Front and Lombard. Bridges was pleased with Forten’s work and promoted him to foreman overseeing some three dozen employees, most of them white. With Bridges’ help, Forten purchased the shop in 1798. It was unusual for any novice to take over the business where he learned his trade, but it was especially rare for a black apprentice to take charge of a successful white-owned enterprise.

James Forten Historical Marker.

About this time, Forten purportedly began experimenting with different types of sails and perfected one that made ships maneuver easier and achieve greater speeds. He did not patent his invention, but he was able to profit from it. His sail loft became one of Philadelphia’s most prosperous maritime businesses. Forten’s $300,000 fortune (indeed the name Forten is a derivative of the common slave name Fortune) would make him a millionaire today—one of several along the central Delaware River.

Forten was a reform leader well before Robert Purvis or Fredrick Douglass came on the scene. Not only was his sail shop integrated, but he also financed a range of antislavery activities. He purchased the freedom of slaves, opened a school for black children, and even established an Underground Railroad stop at his home at 336 Lombard Street. During the 1830’s, Forten contributed generously to noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and to Garrison’s antislavery newspaper, The Liberator. By that time, his was one of the most powerful black voices, not just for men and women of color in Philadelphia, but for many thousands more throughout the North. In addition to equal rights for African-Americans, Forten used his wealth to advocate for temperance and women’s suffrage.

James Forten is buried in Lebanon Cemetery. The site of his sail loft at Front and Lombard is now within the footprint of Highway 95.

For more about this great Philadelphian, see Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

Send a message!



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
On 40th Street, New Life For A Long-Hidden Furness

On 40th Street, New Life For A Long-Hidden Furness

October 18, 2017  |  Vantage

What's it take to restore this early Furness? Hidden City talks to developer Tom Lussenhop about the tear-down disaster ongoing across the city and his plans for the former West Philadelphia Institute > more

Praise And Protest At Historical Commission Meeting

Praise And Protest At Historical Commission Meeting

October 17, 2017  |  News

Applause and anger filled the room at the monthly Historical Commission meeting on Friday. GroJLart has the details > more

The True Center Of The City Revealed

The True Center Of The City Revealed

October 13, 2017  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

City Hall may be the "heart" of Philadelphia, but an unassuming corner in North Philly is the true center of the city. Harry K. explores the evolution of Penn's greene country towne and how Philadelphia has a history of being the center of attention > more

LIGHTS! MUSIC! ACTION! Historic Lansdowne Theater Poised For A Comeback

LIGHTS! MUSIC! ACTION! Historic Lansdowne Theater Poised For A Comeback

October 11, 2017  |  Vantage

After 30 years' slumber, Lansdowne's sumptuous Art Deco movie palace is ready to wake up, and rouse Main Street too, with music and community spirit. Ben Leech has the story > more

Wish You Were Here: Postcards From The Past Recall

Wish You Were Here: Postcards From The Past Recall “Real Philadelphia”

October 10, 2017  |  Vantage

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia's new exhibition, "Real Philadelphia: Selections from the Robert M. Skaler Postcard Collection," puts elusive images of working class city life in the limelight. Contributor Karen Chernick has the review > more

Designing The Future Of Healthcare With Stephen Klasko

Designing The Future Of Healthcare With Stephen Klasko

October 4, 2017  |  Vantage

Dr. Stephen Klasko wants to disrupt traditional hospital care and integrate medicine into our everyday life. Through service and information delivery systems similar to Netflix, Apple stores, and virtual reality, the president and CEO of Jefferson Healthcare System believes the future of our well being lies in smart design. Contributor Hilary Jay, founder of DesignPhiladelphia, sits down with Dr. Klasko to discuss breaking the status quo of the medical industry with user-minded health care > more