James Forten (1766-1842)

By Al Dorof

This article was previously published at the Southwark Historical Society.  It has been reprinted with permission.

Portrait of James Forten by unknown artist
Portrait of James Forten by unknown artist


James Forten would be considered a remarkable man in any era, but especially so in Colonial Philadelphia. Born a free man, Forten became one of the most successful sail makers at a time when most African Americans were still slaves, was an astute real estate speculator, invested in stocks and other financial ventures, became a respected money lender and financial adviser who was admired for his fairness, and was an outspoken abolitionist and pioneering supporter women’s rights.

Forten was born in Philadelphia on September 2, 1766 to Thomas and Margaret Forten (1722-1806). His paternal grandfather lived and died as a slave in the Pennsylvania colony. Thomas managed to become a free man at some point, but Margaret might have been a slave during her early life. Under Pennsylvania law at the time, had Margaret had children while still in bondage, they would have been slaves, too. So Margaret waited until she was 41, when she was free, to give birth to her first child, Abigail, in 1763. She was 44 when James was born. The family lived on Third Street near Walnut Street in the Dock Ward.


Privateer and Prisoner
Thomas Forten was a master tradesman who worked as a sail maker for Robert Bridges. Bridges rented a loft on the top floor of a warehouse on Willing’s Wharf belonging to Thomas Willing and Company. Thomas taught his young son the basics of his trade at the Bridges sail loft. Thomas died in late 1773 or early 1774 when James was seven years old, and Margaret was left to support the family, probably as a domestic servant. Still, she managed to send James to a Quaker school for African Americans, which was run by abolitionist Anthony Benezet. But with just two years of schooling, James was forced at age nine to work full-time as a chimney sweep and later in a grocery.

In 1781, at the height of the Revolutionary War when James was 14 years old, he signed on as a powder-boy on the Royal Louis, a privateer captained by Stephen Decatur, Sr. (1752-1808). The ship had a crew of 200, 20 of whom were African Americans. The fledgling American Navy was in no position to challenge the British naval forces, the most powerful in the world at the time. To supplement its small fleet, the Continental Congress authorized private ships along the East Coast to attack and seize British commercial vessels. American privateers captured about 2,280 enemy ships, compared to fewer than 200 seized by the Continental Navy; they provided more than two million pounds of seized gunpowder to the Continental Army. A crewmember could earn as much as $1,000 from the ships and cargo seized and sold by privateers.

Forten’s first cruise on the Royal Louis was a success, but the second was a disaster. The British captured the Royal Louis and took its crew prisoner aboard the H.M.S. Amphion, captained by John Bazely. Impressed by Forten’s “honest and open countenance,” Bazely assigned Forten to look after his 12-year-old son Henry on the voyage to New York harbor, where the privateer crew would be transferred to a prison ship. The two boys quickly formed a close friendship, and Henry urged his father to spare Forten when they arrived in New York. Bazely asked Forten whether he would change allegiance, accompany Henry back to England, be educated with him, and pursue a trade in freedom. Forten declined, explaining that he could not betray his country.

Bazely made sure that Forten would be included on the list of prisoners of war to be exchanged for British citizens captured by the Americans. This spared Forten from being sold as a slave in the British West Indies, the typical fate of blacks taken by the British. On October 23, Forten became prisoner number 4102 aboard the H.M.S. Jersey, an infamous prison ship. After seven months, he was released and made his way back home to Philadelphia on foot.


Master Sail Maker and Business Owner
After the war ended, Forten’s sister’s husband, William Dunbar, a merchant seaman, persuaded him to join him on a voyage to England aboard the Commerce, which sailed in April 1784. When they arrived in London, Forten decided to stay on and find work as a sail maker in one of the many shipyards and sail lofts along the Thames. After a year of training and experience, Forten returned home and apprenticed himself to Robert Bridges, his father’s old employer, at age 19. Within a year, he was promoted to foreman. Not surprisingly, the white tradesmen in the sail loft bridled at the prospect of being bossed by a man of color. But Bridges used all his authority and the respect his workers had for him to accept Forten as their foreman.

In November 1792, Bridges loaned Forten 250 pounds on favorable terms to buy a two-story brick house and lot on the south side of Shippen (now Bainbridge) Street, close to George (now American) Street. Forten shared the home with his mother Margaret, sister Abigail (1763-1846) and her husband William (unknown-1805), and their children, Nicholas (1786-1852), Margaret (1785-1852), and William Jr. (1792-unknown). What motivated Bridges to make the generous loan? Certainly it indicated his respect for Forten’s skill as a master craftsman. Perhaps he was also grateful to Forten for the new type of sail hoist he invented, which enabled ships to rig sails more quickly while also improving maneuverability.

When Bridges retired in 1798, he sold the business to Forten. Although Bridges had children who might have inherited the firm, he had higher hopes for them. He encouraged his sons to become merchants or lawyers rather than craftsmen, which they did. And he intended his daughters to marry up, which they did. Forten had the experience, business acumen, and ambition to manage and expand the sail loft, and he did.

At age 32, Forten ran one of the most successful sail lofts in town, supervised more than 40 apprentice and master tradesmen, and had the respect—and contracts—of the leading merchants and ship owners along the waterfront. Within a decade, he added to his wealth by diversifying. He started by buying, selling, and renting real estate. He bought a lot in Southwark in 1803, built a house, and rented it out. In 1806, he bought a three-story brick house at 336 Lombard Street, which became the Forten family home. In 1809, he acquired a second house on Lombard, between 10th and 11th Streets. In 1812, he invested in a lot in Blockley Township on the west side of the Schuylkill River and another house in the city on 9th Street. From 1816 to 1820, he added to his real estate holdings in Southwark, Philadelphia, and the suburbs. He used the profits of his real estate sales and rents to buy bonds, mortgages, bank and railroad stocks, and shares in various companies. He also made loans to friends, neighbors, and business associates. Forten became one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, white or black.


Champion of Social Justice
Having established himself as a respected man of business, Forten turned his attention to raising a family. In 1803 he married Martha (Patty) Beatte in at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas at Fifth and Adelphi (now St. James) Streets, just south of Walnut Street. She died the following year. Forten married again in 1805, taking Charlotte Vandine (1785-1884) as his wife. Charlotte was a teacher and an outspoken abolitionist.

The Forten’s had nine children, several of whom were named in honor of Forten’s business associates and patrons and most of whom followed their parents’ lead in supporting abolitionist and suffragist causes: Margaretta Forten (1806-1875), Charlotte Forten (1808-1814), Harriet Davy Forten Purvis (1810-1875), James Forten, Jr. (1811- circa 1870), Robert Bridges Forten (1813-1864), Sarah Louisa Forten Purvis (1814-1884), Mary Theresa Forten (1815-1842), William Deas Forten (1823-1900), and Thomas Willing Francis Forten (1827-1897).

Mindful of the rare opportunities he enjoyed to master a trade and achieve success, Forten made a point of hiring black apprentices and journeymen in his sail loft. Black and whites were integrated into his business, worked side by side, and were paid equivalent wages. His business was described as an academy where, in the words of a commentator at the time, the “best class of colored youth of Philadelphia and surrounding States” were trained. Forten even allowed his employees to board at his house on Lombard Street. Census records showed that many more people than Forten’s immediate family occupied the home: 15 people in 1810, 18 in 1820, and 22 in 1830!

In 1813, when freed slaves moved north in search of work, Philadelphia politicians proposed a bill to require that all newly arrived blacks register with the state. Forten wrote and published a pamphlet, Letters from a Man of Color, to protest the plan, arguing that it would perpetuate the general opinion that blacks were not equal to whites and would violate the rights of all free people. The bill did not pass.

In 1817, Forten joined abolitionist leaders Reverend Richard Allen, founder of Mother Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church, and Absalom Jones in establishing the Convention of Color. The Convention’s 3,000 participants denounced the American Colonization Society and its plan to repatriate freed slaves to Africa, where they would presumably enjoy a better life and more opportunities for self-determination. Forten also argued against the Convention’s proposal to help ex-slaves find a better life in Canada. The Convention was a pivotal event that shaped black resistance to any plans to repatriate freed slaves anywhere outside the north.

Forten’s advocacy of black rights was an inspiration to a radical New England abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who began publishing the Liberator, an influential anti-slavery newspaper, in 1831. Forten was an early supporter, helping the newspaper to stay afloat financially and contributing a series of letters under the name of “A Colored Philadelphian.”

Forten’s wife and children shared his passion for social justice for blacks. His wife Charlotte and daughters Margaretta, Sarah, and Harriet were founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the first biracial organization of women’s abolitionists in the nation. Sarah also contributed articles and poems to the Liberator. The Fortens founded and financed at least six abolitionist organizations, bought freedom for slaves, and were active in the Underground Railroad.
At age 75, James Forten fell ill and died at nine o’clock in the morning of March 4, 1841. A “vast concourse of people, of all classes and complexions, numbering from three to five thousand” accompanied his coffin to its graveyard at Saint Thomas Protestant Episcopal Churchyard, which has since been removed to Lebanon Cemetery at 18th and Wolf Streets. He left an estate of $1.6 million in current valuation. Forten’s legacy is inestimable.

Vallar, Cindy. Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Policy, 2007. http://www.cindyvallar.com/forten.html

Winch, Julie. “‘You Know I Am a Man of Business’: James Forten and the Factor of Race in Philadelphia’s Antebellum Business Community,” Business and Economic History, volume 26, number 1, pages 213-28, Fall 1997.

Winch, Julie. “‘A Person of Good Character and Considerable Property’: James Forten and the Issue of Race in Philadelphia’s Antebellum Business Community,” Business History Review, Volume 75, number 2, pages 261-96, Summer 2001.

History of Queen Village

By Steve Sitarski

Long before William Penn and the founding of Philadelphia, Swedish settlers arrived in 1638 at a place the local Lenni Lenape Indian tribe called Wiccaco, which means “pleasant place.”

The early Swedes established Fort Christina (now Wilmington, Delaware) and settled along the river as far north as present day Trenton, New Jersey. Their leader, Governor Johan Pritz, declared the area New Sweden. These early colonists maintained good relations with the Indians, showing exceptional friendliness and respect to their neighbors.

The local river front was lined with an impressive grove of large beech, elm and buttonwood trees. Nearby meadows were populated with elk, deer and beaver, providing pelts for the fur trade. The area now known as Queen Village was originally owned by the Swedish family of Sven, whose log house stood on a knoll overlooking the river at what is now the NW corner of Beck & Swanson Streets. The one and a half story wooden structure had a large garden with various fruit trees. An inlet of water from the Delaware River allowed small boats to dock in front. The British Army used the wood from the house as fuel during the Revolutionary War.

The Dutch briefly claimed control, but the land was quickly ceded to the British. The King of England granted a land charter for what is now Pennsylvania to William Penn, who founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682 (just north of present day Queen Village).

Wiccaco changed little during the 17th century. The original Swedish settlement had few homes and much of their land remained a wilderness, except for a couple of small farms. One notable exception was Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church. Completed in 1700, the impressive brick church between Christian Street and Washington Avenue is constructed in the Flemish bond style with alternating red and black header bricks. After serving as the Swedish Lutheran Church for more than 150 years, it has been a part of the Episcopal Church since 1845 and is the oldest church in Pennsylvania.

William Penn decided to change the name of “Wiccaco” to Southwark, after a similarly situated neighborhood on the south bank of the Thames in London.

In the late 1970’s, Southwark was renamed Queen Village after Queen Christina of Sweden, to recognize her role in promoting the original settlements.

The principal development of the area occurred in the 18th century and was heavily tied to commercial activity along the Delaware River. Ship builders, rope and sail makers, sailors, dock workers, carpenters, and craftsmen were among the early residents of the neighborhood.

Southwark did not officially become part of Philadelphia until 1854, when the Consolidation Act was passed.


18th Century Southwark – the English Rename Philadelphia’s First Suburb

William Penn renamed Wiccaco (as the American Indians and Swedes referred to it) after a neighborhood in London, England called Southwark. Penn’s new city of Philadelphia quickly grew along the Delaware River waterfront and spilled over its original southern boundary of South Street by the early 18th century. The Southwark District (now south Philadelphia) was then divided into two townships but retained their original American Indian names, Moyamensing (pigeon droppings) and Passyunk (in the valley).

By the mid-eighteenth century, a building boom transformed Southwark from a village into a residential and commercial neighborhood, especially along the waterfront. Several mid-18th century homes survive along Front Street between South and Christian Streets. Two notable examples are the Nathanial Irish House at 704 South Front Street and the George Mifflin House on the 100 block of Pemberton Street. Mifflin’s initials and the 1748 house construction date can still be seen on the brick wall facing that street. Dramatic changes in Southwark’s appearance were noted as early as 1743, when Secretary Peters wrote about then Governor Thomas Penn;

Southwark is getting greatly disfigured by erecting irregular and mean houses; thereby so marring it’s beauty that when he (Thomas Penn) shall return he will lose his usual pretty walk to Wicacco.

As the result of several large fires, Philadelphia outlawed the construction of wood frame buildings within the city limits by 1796, but they were already common throughout Southwark. Only a few wood plank front homes survive in Queen Village, and some good examples can still be seen along the blocks of 800 South Hancock Street, 200 Christian Street, and the 100 League Street. Philadelphia Quakers frowned on the performing arts and tried to ban theaters within the city limits so entertainment venues, including the famous Southwark Theater, popped up along South Street near 4th Street.


Southwark Becomes South Philadelphia

While the new U.S. Naval Ship Yard grew rapidly along the Delaware River just below Washington Avenue, the local skyline added a prominent new landmark with the construction of Spark’s Shot Tower in 1808. Now the oldest facility of its kind in America, the Shot Tower was originally used as a munitions plant during the War of 1812.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of mostly Irish immigrates arrived in Philadelphia and the District of Southwark. Fierce competition for low wage jobs, coupled with religious prejudice and severe overcrowding caused social upheaval. The Nativist or “anti-catholic” riots swept the region in 1844 and Saint Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church experienced three days of riots, resulting in many deaths and injuries. Local volunteer fire companies, including the impressive Wiccaco Firehouse on the 100 block of Queen Street, protected the church from destruction.

Commissioner’s Hall was the political center of the District of Southwark and once stood at the intersection of Beck & Second Streets. After Southwark was consolidated into the City of Philadelphia in 1856, Commissioner’s Hall became the 2nd District Police Headquarters until it was demolished in the 20th century. The 100 block of Beck Street (formally known as Beck Place) is an early example of entire block row house development, now common throughout the city. In an effort to preserve them, the Philadelphia Historical Commission designated the 1840s brick row houses as historic.

Philadelphia was a northern stronghold during the Civil War. Washington Avenue hosted tens of thousands of Union soldiers at “Welcome Centers” staffed by neighborhood volunteers who provided soldiers with a warm meal and the thanks of a grateful nation. A constant parade of blue uniforms marched through Southwark on their way to battlefields throughout the south. After the Civil War, the Pennsylvania Railroad opened an emigration depot at the Washington Avenue wharves to help process the ongoing flood of new arrivals. Once immigrants passed through U.S. Customs, they choose to either stay in the city or boarded trains on route to jobs and home elsewhere in the state.

In addition to a flood of European immigrants, African-Americans migrated here in large numbers from the war torn southern states and settled along either side of South Street, primarily west of 6th Street. By the 1890s, an influx of mostly Eastern Europeans attracted a large Jewish population along the 4th Street commercial corridor and a significant number of Poles settled along the waterfront as dockworkers. Severe overcrowding resulted in poor local housing conditions, filthy streets & alleys, rampant crime, and even more social unrest. The nineteenth century witnessed dramatic changes to the once semi-rural District of Southwark became South Philadelphia.


From South Philadelphia to Queen Village

By the 20th century, Philadelphia had become one of the world’s largest industrial centers but pollution, disease, and inadequate housing alarmed city officials. Local government was slow to react, so philanthropic groups like the Octavia Hill Association provided the poor with clean and affordable housing. The Association still maintains rental properties throughout Queen Village including Workman Place (Front Street between Fitzwater & Pemberton), and several homes on the 200 block of Beck Street and Queen Street. An influx of mostly Russian Jews firmly established both South Street and Fourth Street as busy commercial districts by the early 1900s.

For more than a century, historic Fabric Row (along south 4th Street) has offered a wide range of textiles for fine clothing, drapery, upholsters, and interior designers. Generations of Philadelphians purchased their new suits and wedding gowns here. After World War II, the neighborhood began a long and steady decline as the children of new immigrants left south Philadelphia for other parts of the city and nearby suburbs.

For the first time in the area’s 300 years history, the local population actually began to shrink after 1950. Two major urban development projects dramatically altered the historic fabric of the neighborhood in the 1960s. In an ambitious effort to provide the city’s growing poor population with decent housing, the government built thousands of new housing units throughout Philadelphia. Locally, several blocks between Christian Street and Washington Avenue (3rd to 5th Streets) were cleared to create the Southwark public housing project. Initially a model for urban renewal, the three large apartment towers quickly fell into disrepair and became a haven for drugs and crime. Within just 40 years, the Southwark project was demolished, rebuilt and renamed Riverview Plaza.

Meanwhile, planning for the construction of a new interstate highway along the Delaware River continued. Countless homes and businesses in the path of I-95 were condemned. Many of the city’s oldest homes, including more than 300 18th century homes, were torn down to create it. Neighborhoods that always relied on the river were now cut off from it. Fortunately, plans for the South Street cross town expressway were successfully challenged in court by local residents and never built.

The abandoned South Street commercial strip soon attracted young artist and new business including boutique shops, restaurants and bars. Despite major changes, many old buildings remained. The nationally successful restoration of the historic Society Hill neighborhood encouraged urban pioneers to buy south of South Street. Rows of restored historic homes, coupled with new residential construction along Monroe, Fitzwater and Catharine Streets, generated renewed interest in Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhood by the 1980s.

Local real estate agents renamed this part of south Philadelphia as Queen Village (Lombard Street to Washington Avenue, Columbus Boulevard to 6th Street), in honor of its original Swedish settlers and their Queen Christina. As the 20th century began, an influx of new residents transformed the old neighborhood once again.


Queen Village Becomes Center City in the 21st Century

In 2002, the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation redefined the official boundaries of center city to include most of Queen Village. After more than three centuries, downtown Philadelphia has expanded to include Northern Liberties, Fairmount and Bella Vista. Queen Village has experienced more rebuilding since 2000 than has occurred here for decades, and has changed from a traditional working class enclave to become one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. What does the future hold for Philadelphia’s first neighborhood? The past actually holds some important clues to the 21st century. Two unique advantages will determine the future development of Queen Village; proximity to center city and history. The golden rule of real estate certainly applies here – location, location, location!

Queen Village is ideally situated adjacent to internationally famous historic sites (Independence Hall) , the region’s business center, and sits along the Delaware River. Neighborhood development has always been tied to the river and it figures prominently in the future of Queen Village. Demand for residential riverfront development will accelerate during the 21st century as new high-rise residential towers, townhouses, boat marinas, and landscaped public walkways transform the waterfront. Local commercial districts, including South Street and historic Fabric Row, will continue to evolve into more fashionable shopping and fine dining destinations.

Queen Village showcases over three centuries of American history and architecture. The 100 block of Fitzwater Street is a wonderful example of local home building styles from the 18th – 21st centuries. Every block in Queen Village has a story to tell. Local homes, public buildings and houses of worship have witnessed dramatic chapters in our city’s long history. Unlike the carefully restored colonial character of Society Hill, Queen Village has a more diverse and eclectic architectural style. Charming 18th century homes, fancy 19th century Victorians, distinctive 20th century bay window facades, and sleek 21st century architecture are evident in the urban streetscape. With the expected designation of Queen Village as a Neighborhood Conservation District by City Council, new guidelines will help to carefully preserve past.

While the future looks bright, Queen Village has many important issues to resolve. Intense redevelopment threatens the unique historic residential character that attracts many new residents to this neighborhood. Addressing quality of life issues, including safe streets and clean parks, requires constant vigilance. Economic class and racial distinctions continue to segregate the River View public housing community from the rest of Queen Village, creating two distinct neighborhoods. The dedicated volunteers of the Queen Village Neighbors Association work tirelessly to address these and many other urban problems. Philadelphia’s first neighborhood offers us a glimpse into our history’s rich past and provides a vision for a promising future.