It’s no secret that the general public’s grasp of American history is imperfect at best. For reasons both malevolent and unintentional, countless figures and their roles in pivotal events have been erased from America’s rich cultural heritage, to our great collective loss. For instance, a quick search for lists of the most successful Veteran-Founded startups or companies reveals monochromatic lists of men, when the reality of our Veterans’ entrepreneurial history is so much more diverse.
The Veteran Entrepreneurs of American History series of blog posts aims to bring forgotten or unsung legacies within the history of our specific entrepreneurial community back into our collective memories, spotlighting Veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs throughout history. We hope to connect you to the rich legacy of America’s past Veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs. We also hope to inspire you with stories of success in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Black Veterans (1776-1900)
This February, America celebrates Black History Month, recognizing the contributions of Black Americans throughout time. At Bunker Labs, we’d like to take that as an opportunity to kick off our Veteran Entrepreneurs of American History blog series by highlighting Black Veteran entrepreneurs whose stories have gone largely unsung by mainstream America. Some of you may already know the stories of James Forten and George Levi Knox in great detail, while others might be hearing those names for the very first time. Both led extraordinary lives in extraordinary times.
James Forten (1766-1842)
James Forten was born free in Philadelphia on September 2nd, 1766. He fought in the Revolutionary War as a privateer and survived as a POW for the better part of a year. He would go on to run a successful sailmaking business and become one of the most successful and wealthy Black men of his time in Philadelphia. He was also an abolitionist leader, participating in the Underground Railroad and countless other efforts to win freedom for all Americans.
He grew up doing odd jobs at Robert Bridges’ Sail Loft, where his father worked. Unfortunately, his father died in a boating accident when James was only nine years old, and it fell to James to drop out of the Quaker-run African school to support his mother and older sister. He continued to work at the Sail Loft off and on, between working as a chimneysweep and grocery store clerk.
James was a patriot, and even at nine years of age believed that as a Black man, he’d fare far better under the those vying for colonial independence than under the crown. While he didn’t help write or sign the Declaration of Independence, he was present to hear the informal reading behind Independence Hall on the 4th of July, 1776. In the fall of 1777, James endured as the British seized Philadelphia for nine months, using Independence Hall as a prison.
Privateer of the Revolutionary War
James wanted to serve, but as a Black child, options of the day were limited. Because of his age, he needed to get his mother’s permission, and James argued passionately in his belief in the promise of an American egalitarian society that judged a man based on his skill, work, and character, rather than the color of his skin or history of his bloodline. In the end, she relented.
Ultimately, it was James’ experience in the sailmaker’s loft with his father that would earn him a billet in 1780, one of only twenty African Americans among the 200-man crew. James Forten served as powder boy on the Royal Louis, a 22-gun privateer vessel under Captain Stephen Decatur Sr. The powder boy’s job was to run cartridges of black powder from the powder magazine belowdecks to the cannons on the gundecks. James reportedly filled several other roles on the ship, and likely would have spent a lot of time aloft in the rigging, learning intimately the nature of how sails interact with the wind, knowledge that would serve him well later in life.
Privateers were mercenary ships given permission (usually legalized in a “Letter of Marque”) to conduct piracy operations on behalf of a parent nation. While the terms are very different now, the Pentagon still engages private military contractors to supplement traditional military forces. From 1780-1781 during the war, there were only three Continental Navy ships at sea, compared to nearly 500 privateer vessels.
Congress employed approximately 1700-ship privateer vessels over the course of the war, nearly a quarter of which originated in Philadelphia.
Privateers captured 2,283 British ships, providing thousands of muskets, tons of powder, round shot, and more to the Continental Army (the Continental Navy captured only 196). However, the Royal Navy also seized roughly 1,300 American privateer vessels throughout the war, making it a dangerous enterprise.
Privateers signed on for cruises one at a time, and each captured ship, or prize, paid out a bounty from Congress, as well as proceeds from selling the ship, powder, cannons, cargo, and more. A single sailor’s share of such a prize typically paid about 50-100 pounds, a fortune in the 1780s worth about $10,000 to $20,000 today.
During James’ first cruise, the British held the ports of New York and Charleston, but the waters between were filled with British ships, and the Royal Louis teamed up with the privateer vessel Holker to hunt these waters, capturing four prize vessels together. Later, the Royal Louis worked with another privateer to take a Royal Navy Sloop called the Nancy. But it was the final encounter of that cruise that yielded the greatest prize. The British 14-gun Sloop-of-War Active and the Royal Louis bloodied each other for hours, and it is said nearly every sailor except James Forten was wounded in the fight. But the prize included important dispatches from Admiral Hood about British fleet deployments.
Returning home, James and the crew of the Royal Louis received a hero’s welcome. Forten had a small fortune in his pockets, and it wasn’t long before Forten signed up for his second cruise in 1781. Unfortunately, the Royal Louis ran into the 32-gun HMS Amphion and the 36-gun HMS Nymphe, both 5th rate frigates. The Royal Louis was outmatched, and on October 8th, 1781, after a seven-hour chase, the British captured her and took James Forten prisoner.
The War of 1812
While Forten fought in the Revolutionary War as a privateer, it wasn’t his only contribution to American war efforts. Early in the War of 1812, there was a potential threat on the city of Philadelphia. James Forten worked with Reverend Richard Allen and Absalom Jones to organize an all-black volunteer force of 2,000-2,500 men to erect defenses at Gray’s Ferry along the critical Schuylkill River at the southern edge of the city.
James Forten: POW
Black patriots captured by the British rarely enjoyed imprisonment. They were typically sold into slavery in the Caribbean. However, Captain John Beazley of the HMS Amphion had two sons, 12 and 14 years old, who were in need of a companion. Forten struck the captain as having an “open and honest countenance”, which is to say, he had an honest face. He further impressed with his skill at playing marbles, and though still technically a prisoner of war, had near free reign of the ship as it sailed for New York.
Captain Beazley offered James a chance to return with his sons to England. There, he promised a good education and opportunities. James Forten risked being enslaved by refusing the offer, stating “I have been taken prisoner for the liberties of my country, and never will prove a traitor to her interest.” Captain Beazley instead wrote a letter, urging the prison commander to ensure James Forten was included in future prisoner exchanges.
James lived for seven months as prisoner 4102 on the HMS Jersey, a prison ship docked in the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Guards there had a reputation for cruelty, and the prison was a breeding ground for ticks, lice, smallpox, and other parasites and disease. 11,500 prisoners died there during the conflict, nearly double the 6,800 patriots killed in action during the entire war. In the spring of 1782, James Forten was released in a prisoner exchange.
He made the journey home to Philadelphia by way of Trenton, NJ on foot. He was in terrible physical condition, and though still a teenager, had lost much of his hair. Still, he was greeted by an overjoyed family shocked to find him alive, and they soon nursed him back to health. In 2014, the Sons of the American Revolution recognized James Forten as a hero of the Revolutionary War, 248 years after his birth.
After the war, in 1784, James worked passage for London aboard the merchant vessel Commerce. The ship arrived a few months before James’ 18th birthday. He stayed in London a year working along the shipyards before returning home. Upon his return, Robert Bridges named James a sailmaker apprentice at his sailing loft on the Delaware River. By 1786, at 20 years old, he was the foreman. Within a decade, James was a master sailmaker, and knew every captain, every kind of sail and stitch, and every quality of canvas in his trade.
In 1798, James purchased the sailing loft from Robert Bridges with a loan financed by Bridges himself. Forten managed up to forty employees, both black and white, but had strict rules of conduct for his employees. Forten’s workers were expected to work hard, be strictly punctual, attend church, and abstain from alcohol. James further mixed his politics with his business in that he refused to do business with ships or captains suspected of involvement with the slave trade.
James Forten: Inventor
James’ success was largely his reputation for quality craftsmanship, but he was also an innovator. He developed a new sail that allowed ships to better maneuver and maintain higher speeds at sea. He also invented a sail hoist that raised and lowered a sail faster, making the ship more maneuverable. While he never obtained patents, he was known and unchallenged as the inventor among ship captains. This word of mouth kept his sailing loft among the best known and most profitable for some time.
Patents and African Americans
After 1793, the Patent Act included an oath that forced patent-seekers to swear their invention was of their own creation, and also swear to their nation of origin. This latter portion would be used to discriminate against Black Americans, who in many cases could not provide a country of origin. In fact, the first Black patent holder in America wasn’t recognized until 1821 (when Thomas Jennings invented dry cleaning).
James Forten: Investor
James didn’t rest on his success as a sailmaker. He invested heavily in Philadelphia real estate, buying, selling, and renting. With the profits, he purchased bonds and mortgages, as well as stock in banks and railroads, notably stock in the Mount Carbon Rail Company. He also invested in local businesses, issuing loans and purchasing stakes to keep the local economy thriving.
By the 1820s, James Forten was known as a respected money lender and financial advisor, and was one of the richest men in Philadelphia. He was also considered one of the most influential black men in the nation. While he left behind a fortune to his children, he also spent much of his money to further social causes he cared about.
James Forten spent much of his fortune on efforts to organize Black Americans and win people over to the cause of abolishing slavery. He funded no less than six abolitionist organizations, purchased freedom for countless enslaved people, and funded many other efforts, including the Liberator anti-slavery newspaper. He wrote many editorial pieces for papers, and his “Letters From a Man of Colour” made his views on issues of the day clear. His own house was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and served as a school for black children. In 1833 Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison met in Forten’s house to found the Anti-Slavery Society.
James Forten received constant death threats his entire life for his efforts. Sadly, despite Forten’s efforts, race relations steadily declined in Philadelphia throughout his life. In 1834, his son was beaten to death by a gang of young white men on the street. In 1838, Black men lost the right to vote in Philadelphia. James Forten died in 1842 at the age of 75, a full 24 years before slavery was abolished in the United States. While he didn’t live to see it, his work certainly contributed to making that day possible.
George Levi Knox (1841-1927)
Born a slave in Statesville, Tennessee, some 40 miles east of Nashville, George Levi Knox would go on to become one of the most influential Black Americans of his day. He founded an Indianapolis barbershop empire, and then ran a national newspaper that helped shape the opinions of thousands. He also became a major political operative and influencer, perhaps single-handedly winning Benjamin Harrison the nomination for president at the 1892 Republican National Convention.
Born into slavery, both of George’s parents were dead by the time he was six years old. George had an older sister Huldah, and a younger brother Charlie. When their owner died, Knox attributed their favored status as all that kept them from being sold to traders headed south. Instead, the adult children of their former owner divided them between two households. George was often rented out as a day laborer to the many small farms and plantations East of Nashville.
Civil War Veteran
When the Civil War reached Tennessee, George’s master took a 12-month enlistment, and returned home for a time. But the conflict loomed closer and closer until, in early 1863, George’s master was recalled, and this time George, now 22, was forced to accompany him.
8th Tennessee Cavalry of the Confederacy
George first served as the body servant of the Confederacy’s Captain James Phillips, the Commander of Company D of the 8th Tennessee Cavalry. More than 30,000 slaves were forced to serve the Confederacy as body servants during the Civil War. While they were not expected to engage in combat, they handled much of the daily efforts of soldiering, including cooking, cleaning, tending horses, foraging, nursing, gravedigging, and other unpleasant labor.
If a battle lasted more than a couple of hours, body servants were expected to locate their charges on the battlefield to deliver food and drink. Body servants typically waited well behind the front lines with wagons, keeping watch on a soldier’s personal effects. However, some officers had their body servants at their side in battle, and though they were forbidden from carrying weaponry, many were hit by enemy gunfire during the conflict.
In May of 1863, George and his master were given leave to visit home and he engineered his escape. A slave named John Biggles hid George under the floor of his wife’s house for two days before nearly getting discovered forced Knox into the field and forest along the property line. He waited almost two weeks until his brother Charles finally caught up to him.
George, Charles, and at least one other man and his uncle traveled on foot, avoiding dogs, bushwhackers, and prying eyes as they journeyed 20 miles south to Union forces. Five miles from the Union Army, they found a guard and surrendered to him.
15th and 57th Indiana Infantry
George became a teamster for the Union Army, organizing mules to haul cargo alongside the soldiers. His brother Charles went to the neighboring 57th Infantry camp, where within a few weeks he took ill. He died days later, and George blamed poor nursing care. George began to fear every horror story and rumor he heard about the north was true. In many speeches, he compared his life as a slave favorably to his time with the Union Army.
George would serve in many roles in the 15th Indiana Infantry as it marched to Chattanooga, Tennessee. He participated in the fighting there, though removed largely from the frontline combat. Sick of the hard work of moving wagons and mules, he hired himself to Union Captain John F. Monroe of the 15th Indiana Infantry as a body servant. Three days later, the man died in George’s arms from a gunshot wound sustained during the Battle of Missionary Ridge earlier in the day.
George again sought an officer to hire himself out to as a body servant, eventually meeting Lieutenant William G Humphreys of the 57th Indiana Infantry. He marched with the Lieutenant for some time, until moving into the employ of Captain Addison Dunn of the same regiment later. George accompanied Captain Dunn home to Indianapolis, where they parted ways in April of 1864. George was left to navigate a new city and his newfound freedom alone.
With twenty cents in his pocket and a few meager belongings in a carpet bag, George Knox crossed town and got a job as a yard man in the Bates House Hotel in Indianapolis paying 18 dollars a month. He was soon head porter, and then moved across the street to be the porter at a barbershop, where he earned 7 dollars a day. In 1865, the barbershop went bankrupt, but Knox had saved his money. He went in with the barbers on a new shop in Kokomo, Indiana, and there he learned the barber trade.
Unfortunately, when he returned to Indianapolis in October 1865 to strike out on his own, he got scammed into buying a fraudulent lease at the Spencer House Hotel, which left him dead broke just four weeks before he was to marry Aurilla Harvey. Unwilling to marry without a job, George moved to Greenfield, Indiana, this time with forty cents in his pocket, and opened a new barbershop with a single chair.
He was married to Aurilla a few weeks later. An educated woman, she taught George how to read and write as his business grew. Soon, he moved to a larger location across from the courthouse, and became a fixture in Greenfield for nearly 20 years, mastering his trade and the discussion of politics. Knox forged alliances among Greenfield’s Republican Party and pushed to make church and school more available to Black children of the region.
In 1884, Knox moved to Indianapolis and partnered with a well-known local barber to open a barbershop on 11 South Meridian Street, just two blocks from the Indiana Statehouse. It was a raging success, and within a year he had six full-time barbers in his employ. A year later he opened a second location on his own, leasing space in the Bates House Hotel he once worked in as a porter, a full block closer to the statehouse.
Knox sold a white-glove experience for his clients to rival any barbershop in Chicago or Cincinnati. Not only did he provide haircuts and shaves, but the barbershop sold cigars, a variety of tonics, lotions, and other luxury services. With two successful barbershops fueling his expansion, Knox soon added locations at the Grand Hotel in 1892 and the Denison House not long after. By the mid-1890s he had more than fifty Black employees working for him, though they only served wealthy white clients, among them the future 23rd President of the United States Benjamin Harrison.
As George Knox’s empire grew, he invested in land, businesses, and banks, including the Black-owned Fidelity Savings and Loan. He also bought up debt. In the early 1890s, Knox held a considerable amount of debt on Edward E. Cooper’s Democratically-aligned Black newspaper, the Freeman.
He bought out Cooper and took over the paper in 1892, switching its politics overnight to make the case for Indianapolis’ own Benjamin Harrison’s presidential run. Afterward, Knox wielded the paper’s political influence as a mouthpiece for his own moderate Republican views, largely in line with frequent contributor Booker T. Washington. George was very hands-on, running the paper with his son Elwood, and they quickly expanded readership. Knox took great pride in paying for original content, hiring correspondents to report on Black issues nationwide.
By 1913 the Freeman had a national circulation over 20,000-25,000 per issue, and was considered the most important news source for Black Americans. In 1926, the paper went bankrupt. This was due to a variety of market forces, but largely boiled down to stiffer competition in local and national markets, and the dramatically rising costs of paper.
Baseball Team Owner
In 1887, there were many failed attempts to form a nationwide league for Black baseball players. This was long before the heyday of Rube Foster’s National Negro League of the 1920s, or the twilight years of segregated baseball with Hank Aaron and the Indianapolis Clowns in 1951. In 1890, George Knox owned an amateur team called the Indianapolis Barbers Baseball Club, where his son Elwood (at 19 years old) was the starting pitcher.
It’s not clear if Knox saw ownership of the team as an investment, local prestige, an opportunity to advertise his barbershops, or just wanted to support his son’s dreams. It’s also unclear if George owned multiple teams in the local rec club, or merely supported or sponsored them, but his son also played with the Freemans in 1894 (possibly named for the paper they operated together), and managed the Herculeans for five years after that, very likely associated with the Black Republican social club of the same name.
George Knox’s barbershops always served the white, wealthy, political elite. Even back in Greenfield, Knox networked his way into the halls of power within the Republican Party. He took those lessons with him to Indianapolis, and by the early 1890s he was very influential throughout Indiana. While painted by Democrats as a militant radical, Knox was a moderate, and a defender of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Philosophy. This was often criticized as a “don’t rile the white folks” philosophy toward race relations that could never lead to true equality. Progressive elements like W.E.B. DuBois also criticized his colorline barbershops that only served white men.
The truth is more complicated. George Knox never served as an elected official. So, in many ways, his access to power within the Republican party depended on the good favor of the white men in charge. So, while his strategy of accommodating his white colleagues might read as problematic or inauthentic today, it served as a successful strategy for Knox for most of his life, right up until the early 1900s when it didn’t.
For a moment, George Knox was one of the most important delegates during the 1892 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. In a legendary marathon of backroom one-on-one debates, Knox convinced other delegates who took issue with Benjamin Harrison’s stance on Black issues to support the Republican incumbent. While Knox returned as a delegate to the 1896 Republican National Convention in St. Louis, his power within the party had already begun to wane.
By the mid-1890s, George Knox found more progressive stances on a variety of issues, calling for an end to interracial marriage bans in 1896. But he remained difficult to pin down politically, as he almost single-handedly killed an Indiana bill to integrate schools a year later. In 1904, Knox tried to primary a white Republican House member in a majority Black district of Indianapolis. Republican bureaucrats killed his candidacy with two weeks before the primary vote. In 1906, Knox spoke out against Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who ordered wrongfully-accused Black soldiers in Texas dishonorably discharged in the wake of the Brownsville Affair.
In 1907 he even urged Black voters to show their independence in local races across the country. However, it wasn’t until 1924, when the KKK had taken the reigns of Indiana Republican politics, that Knox and the Freeman Newspaper endorsed the Democratic Party. Three years later, in August 1927, Knox suffered a fatal paralytic stroke in Kentucky.
Black America Switches Parties
When Black men gained the right to vote in 1870 with the 15th Amendment, most Black voters identified with Lincoln’s Republican Party. Around 1920, (when women also won the vote) the Black vote split over support for Civil Rights Legislation, and many Black Americans were unsure which party to support. However, by 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition solidified the Black voting bloc behind the Democratic Party, where it has largely remained to this day.
Their Legacy Lives On
While there are still unique challenges unjustly facing Black entrepreneurs today, regardless of their Veteran status. However, there are also countless success stories in the century since the passing of George Levi Knox. Stories like founder Berry Gordy Jr’s of Motown Records, or investment entrepreneur Chris Gardner’s. These entrepreneurs are inheritors of a proud and unique legacy that traces back to James Forten and the very founding of this nation to today’s most exciting startups.
To see what some Black Veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs are doing in today’s marketplace with Bunker Labs, you can check in with the Transition Podcast and host “Iron” Mike Steadman year-round, or check out some of Mike’s recent interviews with Black Veteran entrepreneurs. You can also learn more about Bunker Labs’ Breaking Barriers in Entrepreneurship, a workshop series for growth-stage entrepreneurs from traditionally underserved communities.