Forten, Margaretta (1808–1875)

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Forten, Margaretta (1808–1875)

African-American abolitionist and educator. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1808; died of pneumonia on January 14, 1875; daughter of James Forten and his second wife Charlotte (Vandine) Forten; aunt to Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837–1914); educated at home and at the school set up by her father and Grace Douglass; never married; no children.

Born in 1808 as the eldest child of James Forten and Charlotte Vandine , Margaretta was named for her paternal grandmother Margaret Forten who died two years before her grand-daughter's birth. Both James and Charlotte, his second wife, were freeborn. Charlotte, a native of Pennsylvania, married James in 1805 when he was 39 and a widower. James' great-grandfather arrived in Pennsylvania as a slave brought from West Africa in the 1680s. James' grandfather became a free man, most likely by self-purchase, and James' father Thomas was a skilled artisan who worked as a sailmaker. James learned the trade from his father who also made sure that his son was educated. In 1796, James took over the business of Robert Bridges, a white sailmaker who had employed both James and his father. Soon well established in the trade, Forten was known for the quality of his workmanship and fair dealing, and he refused to fit out vessels that he suspected were employed with the slave trade. As Philadelphia prospered in the 1790s and early 1800s from trade, James Forten too prospered and invested his profits in real estate, moneylending, and in time in railroad and bank stocks.

By 1808 when Margaretta was born, the family lived in an elegant brick house on a main thoroughfare in Philadelphia, at 92 Lombard Street. The three-story house was home to Margaretta, her parents and siblings as well as domestic servants and apprentices and journeymen from James' sail loft. The number of occupants grew during the early 19th century, with the federal census recording 15 members in 1810 as compared to 22 in 1830.

The Fortens had six children by 1819, and Margaretta had three sisters and two brothers (two more Forten sons would follow). Securing a decent education for the children was of concern in an age when the schools that were open to black children were church and charity enterprises; these schools could teach the Forten children the basics but were not equipped to provide them with the advanced education that James Forten wanted for his children. Grace Douglass , who was an old friend of James' and now had five children of her own, worked with James to open a school. They hired a teacher in 1819, Britton E. Chamberlain, and the school would eventually be taken over by Grace's daughter Sarah Mapps Douglass when Chamberlain left. Margaretta attended this school and also received additional education at home. She learned to both speak and read French. When taking tea with the Forten family, the Reverend Breckinridge, a member of the American Colonization Society, was discussing Haitian politics with James Forten. To prove a point, James handed a letter from an acquaintance about Haiti to Breckinridge who could not read French. Margaretta was called to translate the letter. As Julie Winch writes in Notable Black American Women: "[T]he editor of an abolitionist journal, in recounting this incident, observed that Breckinridge went from the Forten home to a meeting at which he argued that black people should leave the United States because they were intellectually inferior to whites."

Upon visiting the Forten home in 1833, the white abolitionist Samuel J. May was impressed by how "lovely [and] accomplished" the daughters were. He insisted upon escorting Margaretta to an antislavery meeting, to the mortification of some of his acquaintances.

From an early age, Margaretta was called to assist her father in his business affairs and witnessed a deed for him at age nine (1817). When James Forten drew up his will in 1836, she was appointed one of three executors. In this position, she would later complete property deals that had been begun by her father and initiate several court cases to protect her own interest as well as those of the other heirs.

Drawn into the abolitionist fold by her upbringing, her community, and her own perceptions of American societal injustices, Margaretta had grown up in a home that was a place of calling for committed opponents to slavery. Her father provided a good deal of the early funding for the Liberator, an antislavery journal edited by William Lloyd Garrison who was a welcome guest at the Forten home. Other guests Margaretta met included James and Lucretia Mott , Arthur and Lewis Tappan, George Thompson, Benjamin Lundy, Edward Abdy, and J. Miller McKim.

When the American Anti-Slavery Society was created in Philadelphia in December of 1833, Margaretta expressed her emotions in verse. Her poem, published in the Emancipator (January 14, 1834), was addressed to the organization's founders, her brother-in-law Robert Purvis among them, and included the lines:

Ye blessed few! who have stood the storm
Of persecution, in its direful form;
Unmov'd have faced the foe in stern array
Clad in bold armor for the dread affray;
Your banner floats—its motto may be read,

Signed "M.T.F.," the poem was identified by the editor as having been written by "the daughter of a highly respected colored gentleman of Philadelphia." This is the only poem attributed to Margaretta with certainty, though it is possible that she wrote others under a pseudonym.

Female abolitionists were initially denied full membership in the Anti-Slavery Society and so formed their own societies. Forten, along with her sisters Sarah and Harriet Forten , traveled to New York in 1837 and attended the Women's Anti-Slavery Convention. They also attended two subsequent conventions in Philadelphia. Organizing at the local level, Forten participated in drawing up the constitution that formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, an interracial organization. She was also present when the Society disbanded, and it was she who moved the adoption of a preamble and resolution that dissolved the society on March 24, 1870.

With a keen interest in promoting the education of black children, for more than 30 years Margaretta Forten ran a successful private school. She served as principal of the Lombard Street Primary School from 1845. Her influence on her niece Charlotte Forten Grimké (the daughter of Margaretta's brother Robert Bridges Forten) was profound, and, after the death of Robert's wife, Charlotte was apparently entrusted to his mother and Margaretta. Charlotte owed much of her early education to her aunt, with whom she corresponded while away at school. "Wrote a letter to my dear aunt," wrote Charlotte in her journal. "I can always write more freely to her than to any one else" (Stevenson, November 19, 1854). Margaretta was responsible for identifying her niece as the author of a poem in the Liberator (1855), a disclosure that annoyed Charlotte. Forten visited her niece in Salem, and they attended antislavery celebrations together. The close ties between the two continued, with Forten shaping Charlotte's literary tastes. During the Civil War, when Charlotte went to the Sea Islands to teach at the Freedmen's School, Forten received letters from her which included requests for clothing for the freedmen and toys for Charlotte's younger students.

In time, the running of the Lombard Street household fell to Margaretta Forten. She took care of her elderly mother and brothers Thomas and William, bachelors. William Forten continued the family's tradition of activism by aiding fugitives in the 1850s, achieving notoriety for his coordination of the defense of those charged with a Southern slaveholder's death in the Christiana riot, helping recruit black troops during the Civil War, and as an officer of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League. He was instrumental in Philadelphia politics during the 1870s when his ability to deliver the black vote for the Republican Party proved crucial. Never married, Margaretta took on the roll of political hostess, and her running of the household facilitated her brother's political career.

Evidently suffering from recurrent respiratory problems, possibly from tuberculosis, Margaretta Forten had to take absences from school a number of times. Two of her sisters as well as her nieces and nephews also suffered respiratory problems. She remained a teacher and dedicated advocate of social reform until her death from pneumonia on January 14, 1875.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.