James Forten (1766–1842) was an African American inventor, businessman, and abolitionist.
Born free in Philadelphia, he had little formal schooling. In 1781, during the Revolutionary War, he joined the navy and was captured by the British. He was offered his freedom, but he refused; he preferred to serve his country, America. He was eventually released, and his service with whites helped form his views on racial equality.
After the war, he became an apprentice to a sailmaker. He learned the trade well and even invented a device that improved his sails. He eventually took over the business, became wealthy, and had many white employees.
Forten became an important humanitarian. He supported temperance and gender equality. But he was best known as an abolitionist.
At this time, many opponents of slavery wanted to create a colony for freed blacks in Africa. Forten supported the American Colonization Society when it was founded in 1816. However, a meeting with thousands of blacks in 1817 led him to change his mind, and he became a fervent opponent of colonization. He wanted freed blacks to stay and live in America. He needed a way to spread his abolitionist ideas, so he supported William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator.
His last years were difficult. There was an upsurge in racist violence in Philadelphia. One of his sons was attacked, and he was threatened. In 1838, the state of Pennsylvania disenfranchised blacks. But Forten never gave up. After losing his ability to give speeches, he continued to write about the evils of slavery.
James Forten was an extraordinary man, and more than 5,000 blacks and whites attended his funeral.