The Fortens were one of the most prominent black families in Philadelphia. They founded and financed abolitionist organizations, wrote against slavery, operated a school for African-American children, entertained the leading abolitionists of the day and harbored fugitive slaves.
The patriarch of the Forten family, James Forten, was born free in 1766. With the exception of two years of school, he was self-educated. His invention, a device which strengthened boat sails and made it possible for ships to sail greater distances, made him a very wealthy man (he is also known to have refused business from slave traders). Although his wealth created great opportunities for his family, James Forten was very active in humanitarian efforts. He worked very hard against enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act in Philadelphia. When his children were not allowed to attend the white schools in his area, Forten had them all privately tutored and subsequently operated a school in his home for children of color.
Sarah Louisa Forten Purvis was born in 1814. Her poetry helped to urge abolitionist white women to include women of color in their societies, in their work toward freedom. She was a founder of the Philadelphia Female Anti Slavery Society (an abolitionist organization consisting of black and white women)with her sisters and mother.
We are thy sisters,—God has truly said,
That of one blood, the nations he has made.
O, Christian woman, in a Christian land,
Canst thou unblushing read this great command?
Suffer the wrongs which wring our inmost heart,
To draw one throb of pity on thy part!
Our ‘skins may differ,’ but from thee we claim
A sisters privilege, in a sister’s name. (1834)
Harriet Davy Forten Purvis was born in 1810. She was also a member of the Female Vigilant Society, which provided money, clothes, food and transport to fugitive slaves. In addition to this, she housed many runaway slaves in her home. Harriet Forten Purvis was known for her lectures against segregation and for voting rights for blacks and women. The greatest threat to her personal safety came from an ironic source, however. Because her husband was of mixed race, and of very light complexion, they were accused of miscegenation (interracial marriage). Rioting and arson threats led them to move outside of the city, which probably put them in a better position to help slaves who were seeking freedom.
Margaretta Forten,born in 1815, ran her own private grammar school. Known for her business acumen, Margaretta managed the estate of James Forten.
Charlotte L. Forten Grimke (Granddaughter of James), born in 1837, assisted the Salem (MA) Female Anti-Slavery Society with fundraising and coalition building. She also worked as an educator, helped recruit teachers for the U.S. treasury department and was the first black teacher from the north to teach newly freed slaves in the south. Her journals are among the very few surviving ones written by a free black woman of the Civil War period.