Historical Abolitionist of the Month: James Forten

By Solveig Haugen

The fight to end slavery is rooted in history and extends until today. Each month we will profile some of the brave men and women, both contemporary and historical, who have fought to eradicate slavery. Our historical abolitionist of the month is James Forten.

James Forten was a powerful African American businessman and activist who used his influence to fight slavery in pre-civil war Philadelphia. Born free, Forten joined the Continental Army when he was fourteen and served on a ship named the Royal Lewis. He later became an apprentice to a sail maker and in ­­­1798 gained ownership of the business.

Forten petitioned the U.S. Congress to modify the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which stated a slave owner had the right to cross state lines and take back a runaway slave. He published a pamphlet titled A Series of Letters by a Man of Colour to oppose a Pennsylvania Senate Bill that would restrict African American emigration. He also generously funded fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, which publicly spoke against the injustice and inhumanity of slavery.

Forten ran his business without any slavery interaction, an extremely bold and progressive move. He refused to sell supplies to any ships that were involved or suspected to be involved with the slave trade. Forten proved that a business could still thrive without any involvement with slavery.

As a father, Forten instilled in his children the importance of freedom and eradicating slavery, leaving a strong and multi-generational legacy of tenacious abolitionists. Three of his daughters founded the first biracial women’s abolitionist organization in the nation, and helped found and fund five other abolitionist organizations.

Business leaders today should model themselves after James Forten. Refusing to passively support the slave trade with one’s business will increase the risk for traffickers and decrease their profits. Businesses could achieve this by monitoring and promoting business transparency and ensuring that their supply chains are free of forced labor.

Forten was an outstanding businessman and father. As Father’s Day approaches, we should reflect on and be thankful for fathers like Forten, who, because of their desire and tenacity for justice, encouraged others to join the movement to abolish slavery. Happy Father’s Day to all fathers who battle injustice and create future leaders to carry on the fight.


Published on June 16, 2015


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