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James Forten

James Forten, a prominent Philadelphia businessman, inventor, and black leader.
James Forten, a prominent Philadelphia businessman, inventor, and black leader. (Credit: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

An influential black mariner in the 1700s was James Forten of Philadelphia. He served on the privateer Royal Louis when it was captured by the HMS Amphyon. He was only twelve years old when his ship was commandeered.

According to the Black Inventor Online, Forten's future was to become a slave, but a chance game of marbles with the captain's son changed his fate. The captain's son took a liking to Forten and asked his father to spare him. Forten was offered a home in England. He turned down the offer stating, "I am a prisoner for the liberties of my country. I will never, never prove a traitor to her interests."

Forten spent the remainder of the war in a British prison cell, according to records. After the war, Forten invented a device to make the handling of sails easier. Later, he became and inventor and started his own sail making company and became the richest African-American of his time. At eight years old, 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 Forten 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.

James Forten historical marker in Philadelphia.
James Forten historical marker in Philadelphia. (Credit: Blackinventor.com)

Pleased with his work and ambition, Mr. Bridges eventually appointed Forten 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 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.


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