“James Forten, a colored man, occupied the upper part of Willings’ stores as a sail-loft, where he pursued the trade of
sail making in 1805, and for many years after... He was very genteel in appearance, good figure, prominent features, and upon the
whole rather more handsome than otherwise.”
James Forten climbed the steps of the wooden platform outside Mother Bethel Church and felt the crowd’s attention weigh him down. Folks had come craving hopeful words from someone rich but brown as any of them. What could he tell them in these lean days?
Forten kept his princely bearing despite his doubts and a knee that ached in Philadelphia’s leaden heat. He looked at the large rough stones of Mother Bethel, laid by ex-slaves and freeborn blacks, to take his mind off the pain and the dilemma.
He’d make this speech short-he consulted his gold watch-and get home fast. He wouldn’t even be speaking outside if the pastor hadn’t insisted that the church was too small, and that every black mother’s son in the city ought to hear him. Crowds made him nervous.
Who could tell who stood in such a multitude? He’d had threats over the years, ever since he’d grown wealthy from sailmaking and outspoken about ending slavery. Between his money and his mouth, he riled lots of people.
At the top of the platform Forten nodded to Mother Bethel’s pastor. Forten said a silent prayer, then faced the thronged street. The free colored soap-boilers, wheelwrights, tinsmiths, and other tradesmen wore white and soft colors, their summer best. A sprinkling of West Indians had come in bright island prints, the women attractive in intricately tied head cloths. A ragged family jostled nearer the platform.
The white abolitionists stood out like chalk marks on a slate board. Newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, looking dry as dead corn shucks, adjusted his spectacles. Quaker preacher Lucretia Mott and her husband James sat in their buggy near the Forten family carriages. Messrs. Merrihew and Gunn, printers of antislavery tracts, looked resolute and parboiled in the July heat.
A black huckster wove through the crowd toting a huge wicker basket. “Hey, I got red ripe wa-a-atermelon!”
Forten took a step forward. People hushed. One of the mounted constables quieted his prancing horse. The man would probably report every word he said.
“This Fourth of July in the year of our Lord 1837,” Forten said, “more than half of us live in chains.”
“Yes, Jesus!” a young woman yelled.
“We’re with our brethren in spirit, but we’re not gathered to mourn today.”
“Thank you, Jesus!”
“We’re here to give witness that we too, fought to make this nation free!”
“Preach on, now!”
The street erupted in applause. Forten recalled his days as a powder boy on a patriot privateer. Where was the brotherhood promised back then?
Forten’s gaze swept the crowd. A native Philadelphian, he knew most of the faces. A gray-haired woman with rickets, foul-tempered but a magnificent embroiderer, made her way forward with a stout stick and rocking gait. Off to the left, a stranger in a straw hat angled toward the platform. Two youths to Forten’s right, a head taller than most of the men, caught his eye. Big-boned, sturdy, but even in this hard-pressed crowd they looked like a month of empty cupboard. One of them bumped someone hard.
Forten took a deep breath. “Let these words remind us of the past and sustain us in the present.” He put his whole life in his voice and said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
The cheers filled him with quiet pride. Three score and eleven, and he could still rouse his people.
The tall youths edged forward. Straw hat-something about him seemed familiar-approached from the other side of the crowd. But lots of people pushed closer as passion warmed his words.
“It’s a sharp step from where we are to where we want our children to be.”
“But get them to read and cipher, get them apprenticed, and they’ll make it.”
Would his own sons make it? He had climbed high, but could his family hold that ground once he was gone? The legislature had the black vote on the chopping block.
“We all know the saying: ‘Praise the bridge that carries you over,’” Forten said. “Friends with us today have clothed and fed some of us this year,” Forten said. He looked pointedly at the Motts and other Quakers in the crowd. “We thank them, couldn’t have made it without them.”
People applauded. He paused, let the clapping go on. It would keep Quaker aid coming.
“But colored helping colored will see us through these troubled days. If we look to ourselves, we’ll have a lot more to celebrate come next Fourth of July!”
Applause thundered again. As Forten came down the steps, the Motts, Garrison, and other friends surged toward him. He felt relieved. The constables reined their horses around.
When Forten turned to greet James Mott, he felt a hand slip into his watch pocket. Nervousness had primed him to a hair trigger. He grabbed the hand, pivoted, and came face to face with one of the tall youths. The youth balled his hand into a fist and yanked down against Forten’s grip. Fifty years of wrestling canvas had turned Forten’s hands into grappling irons that held fast. The youth stopped struggling.
Forten appraised him: strong, spare. Indian blood must give him that reddish-brown skin and high cheekbones. The boy’s full lips parted. Gapped teeth. With his size the boy could have been his son, but those scared and defiant brown eyes held strength his own sons didn’t have.
“You turning me in?” Those few words spoke a world. Southern soil had grown that voice.
His eyes on the youth, Forten had only the metallic glint to warn him. He turned and saw the man in the straw hat inches away. Straw Hat was bringing a gun level with Forten’s head-at least it would be quick-when Forten, unaccountably in his terror, felt sheathed in the scent of smoldering sage. Did impending death bid everyone so fair a welcome?
Someone caught Straw Hat’s neck as he fired. People screamed.
Straw Hat crashed to the ground and landed face up atop the man who’d grabbed him. The youth hooked an elbow around Straw Hat’s neck and clamped down. Straw Hat thrashed, eyes bulging, face going purple. He let go of the gun. It clattered on the cobblestones.
Forten saw the constables leap from their horses and plunge into the churning people. Where was his wife? His children?
People rushed forward. They boxed him in with the two youths and Straw Hat, who lay gasping. Forten felt his head for a wound. Two of his friends yanked Straw Hat to his feet and pinioned him. Garrison stooped and retrieved the gun.
Forten, still feeling his temples, slumped against the pickpocket. In the sudden intimacy the youth smelled as rank as ten stevedores.
“Easy, sir. He done shot over your head.”
Forten took out a snowy handkerchief, wiped his brow, and tried to command himself to stop shaking. People pressed closer. Forten wished himself home.
“Look at this,” said one of them men who’d grabbed Straw Hat. The man held out a palm with something dark on it. “Stained his skin to blend in.” The man motioned toward Straw Hat.
“Get off me!” Straw Hat yelled.
Shock swept Forten when he recognized Rolf Diener’s voice. Diener had worked for years earlier, until drink started drowning him. Forten took in Diener’s bloodshot eyes, the broken veins that webbed his face, his hands molded permanently to a cupped shape from pulling on heavy canvas.
Diener spat at Forten. “Nigger!”
The embroiderer whacked Diener with her stick. Someone kicked him. The constables and church trustees surrounded him and then hustled him off.
Forten’s son-in-law, Robert Purvis, broke through. “You all right?” he said.
Forten nodded, too shaken to speak.
Mother Bethel’s pastor, looking desperate, waved the choir’s best singer to the platform. The huge woman in a violet dress and flowered hat, gripped the rail with both hands and pulled herself up the steps. Her voice carried above the confusion:
My country ’tis of thee
Stronghold of slavery
Of thee I sing
Land where my fathers died
Where men man’s rights deride
From every mountainside
Thy deeds shall ring.
Forten was wiping his forehead, staring after Diener, when he caught a movement from the corner of his eye. The pickpocket trying to sneak off. When Forten clamped the youth’s shoulder, the young man faced him, stayed put.
Forten turned to his rescuer. He stood half a head taller than Forten. He had the same cheekbones and color as the pickpocket, but his left ear looked like a mashed crescent. Still, the young men’s faces spoke for themselves: his rescuer and the pickpocket were brothers.
“Thank you,” Forten said to the taller one.
“He be deaf,” the pickpocket said. “Don’t hear nothing.”
Forten stepped closer to the deaf man and extended his hand. When Forten studied the pickpocket again his feelings seesawed between outrage and respect. “And who might you be?”
The youth said nothing.
What you couldn’t learn from a man’s eyes and hands you probably didn’t need to know. Both youths had plow hands, if ever he’d seen them, but their eyes declared them different. One’s sad eyes seemed to miss nothing. The other’s eyes were dancing with nerve and misgiving. Different as they were, Forten sensed they’d stand by one another.
Maybe his son-in-law could use farmhands. Then again, the kick and fire in the pickpocket’s face might suit him for something else.
“Where are you from?” Forten said. “You have people hereabouts?”
The youth’s face closed.
Forten looked from one brother to the other. “Come with me.”