Watch CBS News

Philadelphia native James Forten's legacy continues with a surprise family connection

A family connection helps continue the legacy of Philadelphia native James Forten
A family connection helps continue the legacy of Philadelphia native James Forten 02:44

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- One of Philadelphia's most influential Black men is finally getting his due. He was a war hero and businessman, honored at the Museum of the American Revolution last year, and his legacy is being preserved with the help of his descendants.

Dolly Marshall is unwrapping an irreplaceable image preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

"This is the original portrait done in 1818 of James Forten Sr.," Marshall said.

Forten was born in 1766, a free man of African American heritage in Philadelphia.

CBS News Philadelphia.

"He witnessed the signing of the Declaration of Independence," Marshall said. "He was present at Independence Hall, hearing those words of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

At age 15, he watched Black and White soldiers of the Rhode Island regiment on their way to fight for independence at Yorktown. 

Forten joined the fight as a privateer on several ships. He survived capture by the British and was freed in 1782. He started a successful sailmaking business on what is now Penn's Landing.

"He was a craftsman, and he created a tool to make sails stronger, and he employed Black men and White men," Marshall said. "And he was known to be the wealthiest man in the city of Philadelphia."

The war hero and abolitionist died in 1842 and lies at rest in Eden Cemetery in Delaware County. Marshall, herself an award-winning preservationist, knew of his legacy, but not her connection.

CBS News Philadelphia.

"It never registered until probably about six years ago, when I was having a conversation with my mom, about the family tree. And she was telling me stories. And I said, 'I think we're related to James Forten of Philadelphia,'" Marshall said. "And she said, 'Yes, there's many Fortens in our family.'"

CBS News Philadelphia.

Natasha: "And how does it make you feel just your connection to this history, to this historical icon in the city?"

Marshall: "It makes me feel proud, but it also makes me feel that my purpose reinvigorated. I'm a part of a big story and that I also have a duty to make sure that stories such as his and all African American history is known. And I'm just so happy to be a piece of the legacy of the Forten family."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.