Contributed by Leanne Daley
Margaretta Forten was born into a prominent family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of James Forten, a wealthy sailmaker and prominent abolitionist, and his wife Charlotte Vandine Forten. Margaretta was one of their six children, and education was of utmost importance to Margaretta’s family, and her father worked tirelessly to secure the best possible education for his children. Unfortunately, in an age when schools for black children were scarce and often inadequate, this was not an easy task. However, Margaretta’s father, James Forten worked with Grace Douglass to open a school in 1819. They hired a teacher named Britton E. Chamberlain. When the school was eventually taken over by Sarah Mapps Douglass, Grace’s daughter, Margaretta attended the school while also receiving additional education at home. She learned to speak and read French. Margaretta along with her sisters and mother were all charter members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, which was established in 1833. She remained actively involved in the society for nearly four decades. She served as the recording secretary and treasurer, represented the group at statewide abolitionist meetings, and worked on various committees, including the membership, education, petition campaign, and annual antislavery fair committees.
For more than 30 years, she ran a successful private school, the Lombard Street Primary School, where she served as principal starting in 1845. She was a dedicated teacher, and her influence on her niece, Charlotte Forten Grimké, was profound. Charlotte owed much of her early education to her aunt, and they corresponded frequently while Charlotte was away at school. Sadly, Margaretta suffered from recurrent respiratory problems, possibly from tuberculosis, and had to take absences from school a number of times. Two of her sisters, as well as her nieces and nephews, also suffered from respiratory problems. Despite her health issues, Margaretta remained a dedicated advocate of social reform until her death from pneumonia on January 14, 1875. Margaretta Forten’s dedication to education and social reform changed the lives of countless people and inspired future generations to continue the fight for equality and justice. Her legacy lives on today, and she will always be remembered as a champion of freedom and equality.