A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten

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9780195086911: A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten

In A Gentleman of Color, Julie Winch provides a vividly written, full-length biography of James Forten, one of the most remarkable men in 19th-century America.
Forten was born in 1766 into a free black family. As a teenager he served in the Revolution and was captured by the British. Rejecting an attractive offer to change sides, he insisted he was a loyal American. By 1810 he was the leading sailmaker in Philadelphia, where he became well known as an innovative craftsman, a successful manager of black and white employees, and a shrewd businessman. He emerged as a leader in Philadelphia's black community and was active in a wide range of reform activities. He was especially prominent in national and international antislavery movements, served as vice-president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and became close friends with William Lloyd Garrison, to whom he lent money to start up the Liberator. Forten was also the founder of a remarkable dynasty. His children and his son-in-law were all active abolitionists and a granddaughter, Charlotte Forten, published a famous diary of her experiences teaching ex-slaves in South Carolina's Sea Islands during the Civil War.
When James Forten died in 1842, five thousand mourners, black and white, turned out to honor a man who had earned the respect of society across the racial divide. This is the first serious biography of Forten, who stands beside Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the pantheon of African-Americans who fundamentally shaped American history.

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About the Author:


Julie Winch is Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She is the author of three books on African American history.

From Publishers Weekly:

Less than a decade ago, Forten remained a footnote in books on U.S. and African-American history. This new critical biography, the first serious work on his life and legacy, not only restores him to his rightful place in American history, but also presents readers with an invigorating and challenging new portrait of pre- and post-Revolutionary race relations and identities. Forten was born in 1766 into a free-born African-American family in Philadelphia, and his ideas and politics were formed by ideals of freedom espoused by Thomas Paine and other colonial writers. He went to sea as a privateer under Stephen Decatur, was captured by the British and, after a stay in London, became apprentice to a sail maker; in 1798, he took over the business, which prospered. His obituary in 1842 noted that he was "the leading sailmaker in the city." But Forten was also noted for his role in public life, particularly his intense involvement in the abolition movement, his close association with William Lloyd Garrison and the 1813 publication of his influential book, Letters from a Man of Colour. Winch, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has done a masterful job of researching and piecing together Forten's life from family and business records, newspapers, tax rolls, letters and journals. But the strength of the book aside from rediscovering Forten is the careful and often surprising research into the complexity of African-American life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Winch never skirts difficult issues: Forten's aunt owned slaves and may have even been involved in the slave trade. And whether she is explicating the role of black freemasonry or how intermarriage with whites and Indians created endlessly complicated social and racial identities for "black" Americans, her scholarship is both outstanding and vital.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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