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 in Haiti. 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)