James Forten
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In the winter of 1842, Philadelphia buried one of its wealthiest citizens.

The hearse rolled through city streets, followed by the family of the deceased, his servants, his apprentices, and friends. Hundreds of ordinary citizens also followed the carriage through the streets. And several thousand more stood on the sidewalks to watch the procession pass by.

What was most extraordinary about this enormous funeral - more than 20 years before the abolition of slavery in the United States - was that the deceased, James Forten, was black.

Forten biographer Julie Winch teaches history at the University of Massachusetts:

"And when he dies in 1842, he is mourned by a tremendous number of Philadelphians."
"Members of the African American community, white reformers and abolitionists, and also substantial numbers of people in the business community, and he's given by the community one of the largest public funerals in early 19th century Philadelphia."

James Forten was born to free parents in 1766, and educated in a Quaker school. Forten left home at 15 to fight in the American Revolution.

Julie Winch:

"James Forten in 1781 decides it's time to join the Revolutionary cause, and this in itself made him unusual. Many in the African American community sided with the British. Forten doesn't. He sided with the patriot cause."

Forten fought at sea during the war. Back in Philadelphia, Forten went to work as an apprentice sailmaker. He rose steadily through the ranks. Forten was 32 when he bought the business outright. Eventually he presided over 30 employees, white and black, and owned property throughout the city.

Forten got rich, and became part of the flourishing free black community in Philadelphia, says Emma Lapsansky, professor of history at Haverford College:

"Free black communities consisted of black businessmen, ministers, teachers, and Philadelphia had a good number of them. By 1830 you're talking about a population in Philadelphia of about 15000 African American people... And it is out of their pockets that the money for the Underground Railroad frequently came and it's out of their energy that often their leadership came."

Free blacks in Philadelphia joined with other abolitionists who ran the Undeground Railroad, providing cash, clothes, and housing to escaped slaves.

James Forten helped the antislavery cause by supporting its newspaper, The Liberator. He was also a founding member of organizations like the Free African Society, and the American Reform Society.

Forten often represented African-American interests in dealings with white public officials. And he flirted, says Winch, with the idea of leading his fellow African-Americans to Haiti, or even Africa.

Julie Winch:

"There are people in the white community that tell him if he really has the welfare of African Americans and in fact the broader community at heart, then in fact what he should do is lead a mass exodus of blacks to West Africa. He considers that briefly and then says 'no way, we were born here, this is our country as much as it is anyone else's country."

Forten died in Philadelphia in 1842. His funeral was one of the biggest in the city's history, for anyone - white or black.
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