The University Record, February 13, 1996

A privileged environment no protection from racism

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

"I would recommend to my colored friends to follow our example and they would be spared some very painful realities . . .," Sarah Forten wrote to a friend in 1837. "We are not disturbed in our social relations; we never travel far from home and seldom go to public places unless quite sure that admission is free to all; therefore, we meet with none of these mortifications which might otherwise ensue."

The realities Forten wrote of are the realities of racism experienced by free, privileged African Americans in the era of slavery. Forten's letter, along with photographs, books and other letters, combine to give a glimpse into the lives of African American freemen of the mid-1800s in "Spiritual Song: The Meaning of African American Freedom in the Nineteenth Century."

Mounted by the Clements Library, the exhibition will continue through mid-March, honoring Black History Month and its 1996 theme "African-American Women: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow."

Forten was raised in a privileged environment. Her father had made a large fortune as a sailmaker, supplying the burgeoning shipping trade in Philadelphia. "James Forten Sr., the grandson of a slave and one of the most influential abolitionists of his day, was estimated to be worth more than $100,000 in 1832," says the exhibit's curator, Rob Cox.

But neither her father's fortune nor her privileged upbringing spared Sarah Forten the worst effects of racism. "Wealth, the argument ran, went some way toward erasing color," Cox says. "But the letter Sarah Forten wrote to a friend in reply to a request for her opinions on colonization (the policy of establishing foreign colonies for freed slaves) represents the voice of an intelligent and strong-willed woman coping with the hostility of white society in antebellum America."

In writing to her white friend about the idea of colonization, Sarah Forten said she believed the idea "originated more immediately from prejudice than from philanthropy. The longing desire of a separation induces this belief, and the spirit of 'This is not your country' is made manifest by the many obstacles it throws in the way of their advancement mentally and morally. No doubt but there has always existed the same amount of prejudice in the minds of Americans towards the descendants of Africa; it wanted only the spirit of colonization to call it into action."

For the pain felt by her own family, Forten wrote, ". . . we have to thank a kind Providence for placing us in a situation that has hitherto prevented us from falling under the weight of this evil: we feel it but in a slight degree compared with many others."

The free, public exhibition is open noon&endash;2:30 p.m. Monday&endash;Friday. Call 764-2347 to arrange special tours.