A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten

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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 ...
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Overview


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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Winch's magnificent biography...sets the record straight, restoring Forten to the position he achieved for himself in life: a 'gentleman of color' and an American patriot in the front rank of the fight for freedom."--Philadelphia Inquirer

"Rediscovering the life of the once-prominent Forten, largely unknown today, Winch has achieved something quite profound and affecting.... Indefatigable research and lucid prose combine to produce a book whose importance cannot be overstated."--Kirkus Review, starred

"Winch has done a masterful job of researching and piecing together Forten's life... This new critical biography 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...[Winch's] scholarship is both outstanding and vital."--Publisher's Weekly

"Winch inventively used historical context to find her subject's place in 19th-century Philadelphia and goes deep inside Forten's social and intellectual world to explain his quest for respect as a citizen and a man.... This first biography of Forten does much to reveal a complexity and range of experience among 19-century blacks."--Library Journal

"This book put me in the presence of Mr. James Forten, an African American, who in the time of slavery was, indeed, a gentleman. The freedom he enjoyed was the freedom he himself created. It was a great pleasure to have spent some time in his company."--Ossie Davis

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 withwhites and Indians created endlessly complicated social and racial identities for "black" Americans, her scholarship is both outstanding and vital. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Winch (history, Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston), author of Philadelphia's Black Elite and other works on African American life, presents a life-and-times biography of James Forten (1766-1842), an entrepreneur, social reformer, Revolutionary War patriot, and gentleman, who stood as one of the most influential and well-known African Americans of his day. Winch casts Forten as persistent in his pursuit of justice and steady in his habits, turning his masterful sail-making skills into a small fortune that allowed him to hire whites and blacks, educate his family in letters and a life of social service, and promote various reform efforts, especially antislavery. Because of a lack of primary sources for much of Forten's life, Winch inventively uses historical context to find her subject's place in 19th-century Philadelphia and goes deep inside Forten's social and intellectual world to explain his quest for respect as a citizen and a man. Winch offers no new sweeping readings on African American history, nor does she explain why Forten's life dropped from the American historical narrative until now. But this first biography of Forten does much to reveal a complexity and range of experience among 19th-century blacks. Recommended. Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Rigorously researched and creatively imagined biography of an African-American who fought in the American Revolution, amassed a small fortune, and fought slavery and racial discrimination. Rediscovering the life of the once-prominent Forten, largely unknown today, Winch (History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston) has achieved something quite profound and affecting. Born in the fall of 1766, his name later changed from the common slave name "Fortune," he was a fortunate child in some ways. His grandfather had somehow achieved liberation from slavery, so James Forten was a free man from birth. He followed his father into the sail-making trade and, after serving on a privateer, enduring seven months of captivity aboard a prison hulk, and living briefly in London, he returned as an apprentice to the sail loft where his father had labored. Winch's prodigious research is evident in the detail she supplies about 18th-century sail-making. Here, as elsewhere, when documentation is missing, she has recreated her subject's world so thoroughly that we know what he must have been doing. After 13 years, Forten took over the business. Noted for his probity as well as his enormous skill, he thrived; blacks and whites worked alongside one another with efficiency, if not affection. Forten soon began to diversify, purchasing real estate and lending money. Winch follows his financial career and chronicles his increasing activism in civic, educational, and religious affairs. He administered his local church, helped create black schools, wrote piercing essays, and spoke eloquently against the "voluntary" emigration of blacks to Liberia, though for a time he favored the genuinely voluntary resettlements inHaiti. Friends and colleagues included the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and Forten died one of the most respected men in Philadelphia. In 1842, thousands of black and white mourners attended his funeral or watched its solemn progression. Indefatigable research and lucid prose combine to produce a book whose importance cannot be overstated. (16 halftones, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195086911
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 1/1/2002
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 9.50 (w) x 6.50 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet 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.

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