James Forten was an African-American abolitionist and wealthy businessman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born free in the city, he became a sailmaker after the American Revolutionary War. At the age of 14, during the Revolutionary War, Forten served on the privateer Royal Louis, commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, Sr. The ship was captured by British forces and he was at risk of being enslaved. As Captain John Beazley, who had taken the privateer, was impressed with the boy, he secured his being treated as a regular prisoner of war. When James Forten returned to Philadelphia in 1786, he became apprenticed to sail-maker Robert Bridges, his father's former employer and a family friend. Forten learned quickly in the sail loft. This was where the large ship sails were cut and sewn. Before long, the young man was promoted to foreman. He bought the sail loft when his boss retired. By developing a tool to help maneuver the large sails, by 1810 Forten had built up one of the most successful sail lofts in Philadelphia. He created the conditions he worked for in society, employing both black and white workers. Because of his business acumen, Forten became one of the wealthiest Philadelphians in the city, black or white.
Forten used his wealth and standing to work for civil rights for African Americans in the city and nationally. Beginning in 1817, he opposed the colonization movements, particularly that of the American Colonization Society. He affirmed African Americans' claims of a stake in their nation of the United States, arguing for gaining civil rights in this country. ...in 1801, he was among the signers of a petition to the U.S. Congress calling for the abolition of the slave trade and the modification of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793. He persuaded William Lloyd Garrison to an anti-colonization position, and helped fund his newspaper The Liberator (1831-1865), frequently publishing letters on public issues. He became Vice-president of the biracial American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1833, and worked for national abolition of slavery, and for black education and temperance. His large family was also devoted to these causes, and two daughters married the Purvis brothers, who used their wealth as leaders for abolition. To honor Forten's role in the Revolutionary War, a headstone was unveiled in a ceremony at Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, the Delaware County site his third and perhaps final resting place.