People & Events
The Forten women
1805 - 1883
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The Fortens were one of the most prominent black families in Philadelphia. Wealthy sailmaker James Forten and his wife Charlotte Vandine Forten headed the family; their daughters were Margaretta (c. 1815-1875), Harriet (1810-1875), and Sarah (1814-1883). The Fortens were active abolitionists who took part in founding and financing at least six abolitionist organizations, and their home was always open to visiting abolitionists.
In December 1833, Charlotte and her daughters helped establish the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the country's first biracial organization of women's abolitionists, which drew all of its black members from the city's elite. Margaretta was one of 14 women who drafted the Society's constitution and was an officer throughout the organization's history. Sarah served on the organization's governing board for two years. Harriet frequently co-chaired the Society's antislavery fairs. The Fortens also represented the Society as delegates to state and national conventions.
Margaretta was a teacher for at least thirty years. During the 1840's she taught at a school run by Sarah Mapps Douglass; in 1850 she opened her own school. She supported the women's rights movement, working to obtain signatures for a Women's National League petition, Margaretta never married, and lived in her parents' home as an adult, as did her two younger brothers, Thomas and William.
Sarah Forten Purvis was a writer. Starting at age 17, she composed numerous poems and articles for the Liberator, under the names "Magawisca" and "Ada." At least one of her poems, "The Grave of the Slave," was set to music by black band leader Frank Johnson.
Sarah and Harriet both married into another family of prominent black Philadelphian abolitionists, the Purvises. Harriet married Robert Purvis in 1832; Sarah married Joseph Purvis in 1838. Both couples moved to an area about 15 miles from Philadelphia. In 1857 Joseph Purvis died, and Sarah moved with her children to the Forten family home.
The household of Robert and Harriet Forten Purvis became a major haven for abolitionists and fugitive slaves alike. In addition to raising her own five children, Harriet also raised her niece, Charlotte Forten (Grimké) following the death of Charlotte's mother. She also pursued her public career as an abolitionist, with her husband's wholehearted support. In her later years, Harriet lectured against segregation and for black suffrage.
A portrait of James Forten
Forten letter to Cuffe
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