James Forten

Keith Henley as James FortenPortrayed by Keith Henley

Born free in Philadelphia, James Forten began working at seven years old following the passing of his father. He attended the African School, run by Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet until he was nine. At 14, Forten was serving on a privateer ship during the Revolutionary War. The ship was captured by the British, but as a result of a bond of friendship he had formed, he was held a prisoner, not sold into slavery, until his release 7 months later. At which time he walked from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to rejoin his family.

He apprenticed as a sail-maker, became foreman, and eventually bought the sail loft itself, and set about turning the business into one of the most successful of its kind in Philadelphia, thus making himself one of the city’s wealthiest citizens. Forten used his wealth and influence to support many causes, particularly the abolition of slavery. Toward this goal he signed a petition calling for the abolition of the slave trade and modification of the Fugitive Slave Law. With Reverend Richard Allen, he worked to establish the first Convention of Color in 1817. In 1833, Forten helped form and finance the American Anti-Slavery Society. He wrote many pamphlets as “a Man of Color” as well as contributing as a writer and supporter of The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper. He continued his efforts for equal civil rights until his passing at 75 years of age.

Keith Henley’s background is one of great diversity.  He graduated South Carolina State College with a major in Chemistry and minors in mathematics and biology. Later, he went on to study Theatre Education at Camden County College Blackwood, NJ. He currently owns and operates J.O.Y. Productions, Queenie’s Homemade Sweets and Catering, & Alpha Designs. In addition he is the Artistic Director and Choreographer for Folkloric Heritage Culture Arts Company Inc. of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He began his historic interpretation career with Historic Philadelphia Inc. and has since worked for American Historical theatre and History First Hand and has performed for the Smithsonian Associates’ Teaching American History program, Historic Germantown, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia as well as local libraries.