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Robert Bridges Forten
*On this date, in 1813, Robert Bridges Forten was born. He was a Black sailmaker, abolitionist and Union Army soldier.
He was the son of James Forten, abolitionist and co-founder of the Free African Society, and Charlotte Vandine. He was one of nine children educated privately due to segregation in Philadelphia area schools. Family, friends, and acquaintances considered young Robert as the most talented of his clan,” says the introduction to the memoirs of his daughter, Charlotte Forten Grimke.
Bridges Forten adapted many of dad’s fine qualities, such as his activism and ingenuity, leading to the invention a 9-foot telescope that was so refined that the Philadelphia scientific community marveled over it at the Franklin Institute. Soon, he’d meet his first wife, Mary Wood, who’d give birth to Charlotte just a year before free Blacks were further disenfranchised in 1838. This resulted in major riots as white mobs in Philadelphia destroyed an orphanage for Black children by setting fire to it. Adding to the horribly racist climate in Philadelphia was the tragedy of Mary dying at a young age.
He later remarried Mary Hanscome, with the couple having two sons, Edmund and Wendell. Bridges Forten became fed up with the racism in the states “and moved abroad, first to Canada in 1855 and then to England in 1858,” until the American Civil War erupted. In 1862, Bridges Forten returned to the United States to defeat the slave-holding Rebels.
He joined with almost 11,000 free Blacks and runaway slaves at Camp William Penn, enlisting in the 43rd USCT, ignoring the pleas of family members that he did not go to war at the advanced age of 50. Robert Bridges Forten rose in rank to sergeant major, transferring to Maryland, where he became seriously ill, dying of typhoid fever on April 25, 1864. "He was the first black to receive a military funeral in Philadelphia,” says the introduction to his daughter Charlotte Forten Grimke’s memoirs.