Man About Town: A Gentleman of Color

Carl Brooks

Published last year to wide acclaim, A Gentleman of Color is history professor Julie Winch’s third book on African-American history and upholds her reputation for scholarship and depth. A Gentleman of Color is the first biography of James Forten, a free, wealthy citizen of Philadelphia in the 18th and 19th centuries, remarkable because Forten was, as the book title tells us, African-American. It wasn’t unheard of for African-Americans to be free citizens in the era before the Civil War, but it was exceedingly rare, and rarer by far, Winch tells us, that a black man be free and rich.

Forten’s life also coincided with the dynamic story of America’s fledgling birth as a nation. Contemporary with Washington, Franklin and the rest of that shady crew, Forten’s story is all the more noteworthy. It provides in miniature, and an uncommon shade, the spirit and energy of the times that drove such monumental change and leaves the reader with an impression of cozy newness, of frontiers explored and lives gambled on hope, the same spirit that characterizes immigrants today as surely as it did 3 centuries ago.

Winch’s biography opens with a glimpse of Forten’s sumptuous funeral procession, an affair that stretched for blocks as it wended through the streets and attracted thousands of mourners. Forten was such a success in business that he became practically an institution in Philadelphia, politically influential and well respected and of course, without the media glut we enjoy today, quickly forgotten as his family’s fortunes faded.

Winch crafts an extraordinarily detailed picture of antebellum life in the north, including such a robust amount of corroborated detail that the reader is left with an unshakeable sense of the veracity of the book. A laundry list of items, like, laundry lists, rent payments, wages, addresses, the exact size and fittings of living quarters, from the poorest quarters to the richest, overflow the book. His debts and credits are faithfully recorded by Winch and she documents Forten’s extensive speculations and his generous lending habits to the penny. This habit contributed to Forten’s acclaim and his influence; unfortunately it saddled his family with outstanding debts and credit that would not be recovered.

Forten was the great American story; rags to riches, he went to sea and returned to Philadelphia to take up the trade that would seal his future. Forten was a sailmaker, a vast industry in maritime Northeastern America. It was a boom trade and Winch again shows off her acumen with a virtual tour of a sailmaker’s loft that provides a rich mine of information. Forten began to buy up property and in general conduct himself as a man of initiative; as a rich man, his children had the best education and displayed all the typical generational shifts of the entrepreneur family in boom America.

The best aspect of this book is the gently apolitical method in which Winch examines the racial pressures that dominated Philadelphia, nascent cradle of American liberty, and Forten, the proto-all-American success story. Winch makes a large part of the book the story of Philadelphian abolition, and recounts in uninflected prose the chaotic, heartfelt opinions and struggles of blacks to gain manumission, including the fascinating tidbit that the free blacks of Philadelphia volunteered to be taxed, to pay remittance to slave owners who would suffer losses due to abolition. That is the kind of hardy spirit and solidarity that myth has come to expect from Americans, and to see it displayed almost before the nation was a nation is heartening. At the same time, Winch doesn’t shy away from the bald, unpleasant shame of slavery, which contributes to the book’s balanced tone. As a good story should be, this one is told plainly and without aggrandizement. The facts are as true as can be; the appended sources runs to almost 100 pages of citations, demonstrating Winch’s rigor and responsibility. Hardly Sunday reading, but A Gentleman of Color is a welcome text for any student of black history.