Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Vigilance Committees

Portrait of James Forten, 1818

A portrait of James Forten, who was a prominent African-American figure in antebellum Philadelphia.

James Forten was a prominent African-American businessman and a key figure in the Abolitionist cause in antebellum Philadelphia. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

James Forten was an African American who went from rags to riches in antebellum Philadelphia. He made his fortune by producing sails for the shipbuilding industry of early nineteenth century Philadelphia. His sailmaking workshop employed people of all races from Philadelphia. His hiring practices reflected his personal belief that African Americans and Caucasians could live and work together. He further expressed his beliefs by helping to organize the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia, whose goal was to aid fugitive slaves and assist kidnap victims. It was also the first incarnation of a vigilance committee in the City of Brotherly Love.

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