While at the Convention in Philadelphia in 1833 I became acquainted with two colored gentlemen who interested me deeply, Mr. James Forten and Mr. Robert Purvis. The former then nearly sixty years of age was evidently a man of commanding mind and well informed. He had for many years carried on the largest private sail making establishment in that city having at times forty men in his employ most if not all of them white men. He was much respected by them and by all with whom he had any business transactions among whom were many of the prominent merchants of Philadelphia. He had acquired wealth and he lived in as handsome a style as any one should wish to live. I dined at his table with several members of the Convention and two English gentlemen who had recently come to our country on some philanthropic mission.
We were entertained with as much ease and elegance as I could desire to see. Of course, the conversation was for the most part on topics relating to our antislavery conflict. The Colonization scheme came up for consideration and I shall never forget Mr Forten's scathing satire.
Among other things he said, "My great grandfather was brought to this country a slave from Africa. My grandfather obtained his own freedom. My father never wore the yoke. He rendered valuable services to his country in the war of our Revolution, and I though then a boy was a drummer in that war. I was taken prisoner and was made to suffer not a little on board the Jersey prison ship. I have since lived and labored in a useful employment, have acquired property, and have paid taxes in this city. Here I have dwelt until I am nearly sixty years of age and have brought up and educated a family as you see thus far. Yet some ingenious gentlemen have recently discovered that I am still an African, that a continent three thousand miles and more from the place where I was born is my native country. And I am advised to go home. Well it may be so. Perhaps if I should only be set on the shore of that distant land I should recognize all I might see there and run at once to the old hut where my forefathers lived a hundred years ago."
His tone of voice, his whole manner sharpened the edge of his sarcasm. It was irresistible. And the laugh which it at first awakened soon gave way to an expression on every countenance of that ineffable contempt which he evidently felt for the pretence of the Colonization Society. At the table sat his excellent motherly wife and his lovely accomplished daughters all with
himself somewhat under the ban of that accursed American prejudice which is the offspring of slavery. I learnt from him that their education evidently of a superior kind had cost him very much more than it would have done if they had not been denied admission into the best schools of the city. Soon after dinner we all left the house to attend a meeting of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society. It was my privilege to escort one of the Misses Forten to the place of meeting.
What was my surprise when on my return to Boston I learnt that this action of mine had been noticed and reported at home. "Is it true Mr. May", said a lady to me,
"that you walked in the streets of Philadelphia with a colored girl?" "I did", was my reply,"and should be happy to do it again. And I wish that all the white young ladies of my acquaintance were as sensible, well educated, refined, and handsome withal as Miss Forten." This was too bad and I was set down as one of the incorrigibles .