Emaciated, barefoot, and his hair falling out in clumps, James Forten walked from New York to Trenton, New Jersey, where local citizens gave him shoes and food. He soon returned to Philadelphia where his mother and sister were stunned to see him alive. Margaret Forten had assumed he was dead after newspaper reports had given the fate of the Royal Louis months ago. Forten would regain his strength and soon find a job working for Robert Bridges, the sailmaker who employed his father.
All of this would make a great museum exhibit in its own right, but this is far from the end of the story of James Forten. By the 1790s, Forten had steadily climbed through the ranks at Bridges’ loft to be head foreman and then manager of the business. His abilities, knowledge and leadership were proven. In 1798, Bridges retired and approached Forten to buy him out. With the assistance of Philadelphia’s Thomas Willing, Forten soon owned the enterprise. By 1810, Forten’s sailmaking business was one of Philadelphia’s most profitable. As such, it made him the wealthiest African American in the country. In return, Forten went out of his way to employ both black and white laborers, and was heralded by Philadelphians for his generosity and his philanthropy. Yet it was the lingering exhaustive institution of slavery that became the outlet of Forten’s time and resources, and would define his legacy.
The Museum of the American Revolution’s exhibit “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia” presents James Forten through this lens, one of Revolutionary upbringing and service that transpired into a lucrative profession that afforded him the means to fight against the injustices of slavery in the United States. The exhibit spends great care and effort touching on not just his involvement with funding the newspaper, the Liberator, but also how his devotion to America, and its ideals, fueled a lifetime of activism, and produced a family of generations of gifted, outspoken and dutiful servants to the cause of abolition and freedom. The exhibit is a full dive into the century between 1776-1876 that is sprinkled with top notch artifacts, including the muster book of the Jersey that shows Forten’s name, the original copy of Pennsylvania’s 1780 emancipation law, and artifacts showing the tenuous struggle throughout the nineteenth century in a racially polarized Philadelphia. But make no mistake, this exhibit is about one family buoyed by legacy, pride and purpose. It is these individual stories of family, tradition and service that bespeak the influences of a patriarch who first heard the very words of the Declaration of Independence at its debut reading, and then sought to hold the country he loved to task. All because a boy joined a curious crowd in July 1776.