You may not realize that not every black man was a slave before the Civil War. In fact some were very successful businessmen. James Forten was born in 1766 near Dock Yard in Philadelphia. His parents taught him to read and write and raised him as an Anglican. When his father died, James went to work at only 9 years old cleaning local shops to support the family, but soon world events were to change James’ life dramatically.
Outraged over unfair British taxation, the colonies convened the Continental Congress and declared their independence in James’ home town. Soon after when the British occupied Philadelphia his “young heart was fired with the enthusiasm. . .of the patriots and the revolutionaries.” Though he was too young to go to war at the time, in 1781, James pleaded with his mother to allow him to join the crew of the American privateer, Royal Louis, captained by Stephen Decatur. She finally relented, but being not yet fifteen, James would only earn half a share of any prizes taken. Of the 200 crewmen, only 18 were black.
The Royal Louis was a very successful privateer, capturing many prizes. However early in October 1781, they were captured and boarded by the HMS Amphion. Because of his black complexion, James feared he’d be sent to the West Indies and doomed to a life of slavery, but God spared him that fate when the Captain of the Amphion took a liking to James and kept him aboard as a companion to his young son. Captain Bazely even offered James a chance to go to England with his son and get a good education, but the young boy replied, “I have been taken prisoner for the liberties of my country, and never will prove a traitor to her interest.”
Perhaps he should have taken the man up on his offer for soon James was delivered to the HMS Jersey a fourth-rate ship of the line that had been transformed into a floating prison. These prison hulks were death camps, crowded, filthy and disease ridden. Another prisoner described the stench as “far more foul and loathsome than anything which I had ever met with on board that ship, and produced a sensation of nausea far beyond my powers of description”
Below decks there was no heat or light, no privacy or fresh air, very little food and water, and no warm clothing. Some 11,000 men died during their imprisonment on the Jersey.
Finally after the British surrendered at Yorktown, and 7 months after coming on board the Jersey, James Forten was released. He “reached home in a wretchedly bad condition, having among other evidences of great hardship endured, his hair nearly entirely worn from his head”
After he recovered, he served on board a merchant ship, spent a year in London when he turned 18, and then upon his return to Philadelphia, became an apprentice to Robert Bridges’ sail loft. Hard working and proficient, he became the foreman by age 20. Robert Bridges took the lad under his wing and taught him everything he knew. James was such a valuable worker, that Bridges purchased a 2-story brick house for James and his family. Six years later, Bridges retired, and James took over the business. By 1805, he had 25 apprentices, most of them white, in addition to his full-time employees. He soon married and had nine children
By the 1820s James was one of the most influential black men in the country. He was six feet tall and witty. Liberty for all people was very important to him, and he fought against slavery and for equal rights most of his life. When he died in 1841, his estate was valued at $67,106.
A friend of James spoke of him:
Mr. Forten was a gentleman by nature, easy in manner, and affable in intercourse; popular as a man of trade or gentleman of the pave, and well received by gentlemen of lighter shade. He was very genteel in appearance, good figure, prominent features, and upon the while rather handsome than otherwise