African American Suffragists (Week 2)

February 17, 2022

CHARLOTTE VANDINE FORTEN
(1785-1884)

In honor of African American Suffragists, this week let’s look at Charlotte Vandine Forten (1785-1884) who set the stage for Women Abolitionists.

Charlotte Vandine Forten was the matriarch of a financially well-off and prominent Black family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Forten’s husband, James, was a sailmaker. Her daughters, Margaretta Forten, Sarah Louise Forten Purvis and Harriet Forten Purvis, often referred to as the “Forten Sisters,” were, along with their parents, active in the abolitionist movement. James Forten was a member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, but as the group did not permit women to join, Charlotte and her daughters joined with a like-minded group of women to form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. This was the first biracial organization of female abolitionists in the United States, and one of six abolitionist groups the Forten family helped to found and finance.1

PBS in a write-up of the Forten Women, indicates Margaretta was one of 14 women who drafted the Society’s constitution and was an officer throughout the organization’s history. Sarah served on the organization’s governing board for two years. Harriet frequently co-chaired the Society’s antislavery fairs. The Fortens also represented the Society as delegates to state and national conventions.

Margaretta was a teacher for at least thirty years. During the 1840’s she taught at a school run by Sarah Mapps Douglass; in 1850 she opened her own school. She supported the women’s rights movement, working to obtain signatures for a Women’s National League petition. Margaretta never married, and lived in her parents’ home as an adult, as did her two younger brothers, Thomas and William.

Sarah Forten Purvis was a writer. Starting at age 17, she composed numerous poems and articles for the Liberator, under the names “Magawisca” and “Ada.” At least one of her poems, “The Grave of the Slave,” was set to music by Black band leader Frank Johnson. Sarah and Harriet both married into another family of prominent Black Philadelphian abolitionists, the Purvises.

Harriet married Robert Purvis in 1832; Sarah married Joseph Purvis in 1838. Both couples moved to an area about 15 miles from Philadelphia. In 1857 Joseph Purvis died, and Sarah moved with her children to the Forten family home.2

Sources:

1 Black Women’s Suffrage, Charlotte Vandine Forten at: https://blackwomenssuffrage.dp.la/key-figures/charlotteVandineForten.

2 PBS, The Forten Women at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part/3p477.html.

Next Week: Continuation

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