As the nation celebrates Black History Month, Philanthropy Roundtable profiles three Black entrepreneurs and philanthropists who helped fund the fight for abolition: James Forten, Thomy Lafon and Mary Ellen Pleasant.
An “indispensable duty”
James Forten was born free in the city of Philadelphia in 1766. As a child, Forten learned the craft of sail making from his father. But at age 14, he answered the call of the American colonies and fought in the Revolutionary War. Forten served on a privateering ship that was captured by the British Navy during its second voyage.
The captain of the British vessel offered Forten the opportunity to receive an education in England, but Forten, a loyal revolutionary, refused, reportedly shouting, “I am here a prisoner for the liberties of my country; I never, NEVER, will be a traitor to her interests.” He remained a prisoner of war for seven months.
Upon his release, Forten continued his education in sail making. He apprenticed at the sail loft where he and his father had once worked together, and ultimately bought the business when the owner retired. Forten was an innovator, developing a new sail design that improved speed and flexibility and, due to his talent and business savvy, he became one of the wealthiest people in the U.S.
While Forten loved his country, he was sharply critical of slavery. In a speech delivered before the Ladies’ Antislavery Society of Philadelphia in 1836, Forten said, “It is my indispensable duty, in view of the wretched, the helpless, the friendless condition of my countrymen in chains to raise my voice, feeble though it be, in their behalf, to plead for the restoration of their inalienable rights.”
Forten put his fortune behind this sentiment. He spent half his money buying freedom for people who were enslaved, made his home a stop on the Underground Railroad, funded the abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator,” and supported the Lombard Street School, at the time “the only public high school for Black students in the city.” He remained an abolition leader for 50 years. Forten passed away in 1842, 20 years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln.
“A man of utmost dignity”
New Orleans Creole Thomy Lafon was born free in 1810. He started early as an entrepreneur, selling cakes to workers along the city’s wharves. As a young adult, Lafon opened and operated his own store and brokered loans. However, he made his fortune in real estate, earning approximately $500,000 during his lifetime (worth about $14 million today).
Lafon fought against the institution of slavery through philanthropy, making sizable donations to the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Underground Railroad. He also contributed large sums of money to a number of charitable organizations before and after the Civil War, including a school for poor African-American children, a charity hospital, a home for elderly persons of color, and the Tribune, the first Black-owned newspaper in the South after the war.
Lafon died on December 22, 1893. Upon his death, he left his estate to various charitable organizations in the city of New Orleans, the largest share bequeathed to an African American order of nuns known as the Sisters of the Holy Family.
According to an entry in the Encyclopedia of African American Businesses, “It’s been said that both in life and death, every Black charitable institution in New Orleans and every newspaper that supported human rights received a donation from Lafon and benefited from his generosity. … Always a man of utmost dignity in life and in all of his business transactions, he commanded and received respect.”
“I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.”
Bold, shrewd and generous, Mary Ellen Pleasant was a giant figure in the fight for abolition. It is unclear whether she was born free or enslaved, but by 1820, at the age of 6 or 11 (depending on the account), Pleasant was working at a shop in the whaling city of Nantucket, Massachusetts.
Twenty years later, she moved to the bustling city of Boston and apprenticed for a tailor. It was there she met her future husband, James Smith, an ardent abolitionist, and began her work for the Underground Railroad, helping to usher people who had been enslaved to safety in Nova Scotia, Canada. After her husband passed away, Pleasant inherited a handsome sum of money she would turn into a fortune through clever investments. Pleasant’s net worth was estimated to have been a staggering $30 million in the 1840s, which would be worth close to $1 billion today.
Pleasant remarried in 1848, traveled to New Orleans to help more slaves escape, and then, to evade authorities, she fled to San Francisco, California during the Gold Rush era.
Though Pleasant was wealthy by that time, she worked as a live-in domestic, using her access to wealthy men to borrow investment tips. She became a lender, ultimately co-founding the Bank of California. She established restaurants, boarding houses and laundries.
Through it all, her fight against slavery and injustice never stopped. She continued to help transport enslaved people to the free state of California, then took care of their needs when they arrived – providing food, clothing, jobs, legal services and anything else they needed to survive. For this work, she became known as the “Mother of Civil Rights” in California.
After the war, Pleasant retired from her many professional pursuits but continued to be a champion for civil rights, fighting against Jim Crow laws. She was often quoted as saying, “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant died on January 11, 1904.