James Forten was born in 1766 as a free Black man in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Over the course of his lifetime, he would make an impact upon the fortunes of industries and the lives of his fellow man.
Forten was the son of Thomas and Sarah Forten and the grandson of slaves. He was raised in Philadelphia and educated in Anthony Benezet’s Quaker school for colored children. At age eight, James began working for Robert Bridges sail loft, and worked alongside his father. A year later his father died in a boating accident and James was forced to take on additional work to provide for his family.
When he turned 14 he worked as a powder boy during the Revolutionary War on the Royal Lewis sailing ship. After being captured by the British, he was released and returned home to again begin working in Mr. Bridges loft. Pleased with his work and ambition, Mr. Bridges eventually appointed him to the foreman’s position in the loft. In 1798 Bridges decided to retire and wanted Forten to remain in charge of the loft. He loaned enough money to Forten to purchase the loft and soon James owned the business, employing 38 people.
Around this time, Forten began experimenting with different types of sails for ships and finally invented one that he found was better suited for maneuvering and maintaining greater speeds. Although he did not patent the sail, he was able to benefit financially, as his sailing loft became one of the most successful and prosperous ones in Philadelphia.
The fortune he soon made was enormous for any man, Black or White. Forten spent his money and lived a luxurious life, but he also made good use of his resources on people other than his self. More than half of his considerable fortune was devoted towards abolitionist causes. He often purchased slaves freedom, helped to finance and bring in funding for William Garrison’s newspaper, the Libertarian, opened his home on Lombard Street as an Underground Railroad depot and opened a school for Black children.
James Forten died in 1842 after living an incredible life. His early years were devoted to providing for his mother, his middle years towards building his fortune and supporting his family and his later years to uplifting his fellow man. He was not only a great inventor, but an even greater man.
James Forten – Better Not Bitter