American Pioneer Chronicles:
Please support our research and view our books for purchase at
Until wealthy foreigners recognized the joy of escaping the snow and ice of winter to sit on the beach of a tropical island, most common people of the Bahama Islands lived in some level of poverty. Since their discovery by the Europeans in the 1600s, many schemes had been brought to the islands to create an economy that would benefit everyone. Most of them failed and the people stayed poor.
During the early- to mid-1800s, wrecking—salvaging cargos and sometimes passengers from ships that had wrecked on the rocky reefs in the shallow waters around the islands—was a lucrative activity. Britain found out some islanders were going beyond simple salvage and were taking active action to trick ships onto the rocks. The government began regulating the practice and eventually outlawed it all together.
There was a truly wonderful flurry of wealth during the American Civil War while the Confederates used the Bahamian island of New Providence as their base of operations for the blockade-running fleet. But to the islanders’ great dissatisfaction, the end of the Civil War also ended the good economic times and triggered what would be the beginning of a fifty-year economic depression.
As fortune would have it, Percy Campbell Forsythe was born on New Providence in St. Agnes Parish on the outskirts of Nassau, the island’s largest town. Percy was the first child of Samuel James Forsythe and his young wife, Amelia Deane. He was born on 10 June 1879, in the fourteenth year of the economic depression engulfing the Bahamas.
Samuel Forsythe was a hotel worker in Nassau, but pay was low, and the family was poor. This probably contributed to the hard times Samuel and Amelia had with their children—in the next few years after Percy’s birth, first a daughter and then a son were born, but both died before their first birthday.
Percy grew up in a society where about 85% of the population was black. This was partially the result of Americans with pro-slave English ideals and the large number of slaves that were brought to the Bahamas with the doomed hope of keeping the plantation economy and lifestyle alive.
Others of the majority black population were the descendants of freshly captured Africans who were taken off slaver ships when Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807. Britain required their navy to stop the slavers and confiscate the human cargoes, which they did with great vigor. The British Navy did not, however, feel obligated to haul the freed Africans all the way back to Africa. Instead, thousands of freed Africans were off-loaded onto the various islands of the British West Indies with a modicum of supplies and with the expectation that they should make do as best they could. In 1834, Britain freed all slaves everywhere in their Empire and the black majority of the West Indies were suddenly all free to seek their fortunes and grow into whatever they could be.
It is no surprise the white business and land owners comprised the upper social class. But it is surprising the middle class was made up primarily of light-skinned blacks and the lower class was made up of darker-skinned people. For a long time, it was not possible for a darker-skinned person to climb out of the lower class and into one of the higher classes—it simply wasn’t allowed.
It wasn’t the same form of harsh discrimination faced by African Americans in America under the Jim Crow laws, but in some ways, it was worse. A black American, if he was careful, could improve his own economic and social position within the black community despite white discrimination. In the Bahamas during the Percy’s early years, it was almost impossible for a dark-skinned islander to do the same. Under these circumstances, it is easy to see why Percy and his brother, Samuel James, decided to emigrate to America for better opportunities.
According to his own testimony on a petition for U.S. citizenship, Percy Campbell Forsythe stated he left the Bahamas for America in about 1898. Some records suggest Percy may have gone first to Nova Scotia, Canada, for a while before moving to Manhattan, New York, but it appears Samuel James went straight to Manhattan. One thing seems clear: Percy was fascinated by steamships from early on. Shortly after entering America, he found a job with a steamship company, and once he reached a position he liked, he never left.
By 1914, Percy was working in a steamer sailing up and down the east coast of the United States, hauling cargo and passengers between New York and Savannah, Georgia. Percy worked in the kitchens of the ships starting as a pantry man and, over the years, he worked his way up to one of the head cook positions.
At some point—undoubtedly during one of his layovers in Savannah—Percy Forsythe met a young woman named Lula Bachelor, a Savannah native. They apparently got along well, and when his ship turned north toward New York again, she went with him. Percy Campbell Forsythe and Lula Bachelor were married in September 1915, in Manhattan, New York.
For the next several years, Lula held down the fort at their home in Manhattan while Percy sailed the seas, away from home for days and sometimes weeks at a time. In the early 1920s, he sailed on a ship called the Cristobal, making runs from New York to Haiti and back. Later, Percy rejoined the Ocean Steamship Company of Savannah and was soon back on the old route between New York and Savannah, Georgia. Unfortunately, Lula Bachelor Forsythe died unexpectedly a few years later in Manhattan.
Percy Campbell Forsythe continued his work on the New York to Savannah run and some years later met and married Nina Washington, a girl from Savannah. Percy and Nina had two children: Nina Forsythe, born February 24, 1925, and Robert Forsythe, born September 15, 1926. Marriage and family were enough to induce Percy to shift his home base from New York City to Savannah, where he could live with the family between sailings. But it was not enough to get him to give up his career on the steamships.
Nina Washington was born October 31, 1908, in Daufuskie, Beaufort County, South Carolina, the daughter of Joseph Washington and Mary Robinson. Nina was less than a year old when the family moved from South Carolina to Savannah, Georgia, where Nina grew up.
Whether he died or left, Nina’s father soon disappeared from her life. But her mother, Mary, was an enterprising lady and kept the family housed and fed by running a boarding house and lunch room—she prepared more food for lunch than was needed for her boarders and sold it to the local public. Her older brother Albert, who continued to live at home until his marriage, was a blacksmith who also helped meet expenses for the family.
Nina worked as a cook’s helper after she went out on her on, but she also followed in her mother’s footsteps and took in boarders. That is probably how she met Percy Campbell Forsythe. With time off between sailings—while the ship was being refueled and new cargo was being loaded—he would have needed a place to stay. The combination of interest and proximity came together, and marriage occurred.
Having regularly spent time in Savannah during his employment with a company named Ocean Shipping of Savannah, Percy quickly settled into his new life there. In July of 1941, possibly with an eye toward retirement and living out his life in his adopted country, Percy filed a petition with the United States District Court at Savannah to become an American citizen.
A little over four months later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and everyone’s world shifted a bit. Shortly after the United States declared war on Japan and recognizing an immediate need for the ability to move men and materials sooner than a new Naval fleet could be created, the United States essentially drafted all major U.S. shipping into the Merchant Marine. Percy’s job did not change, except that now passenger service was sharply curtailed, and priority was giving to hauling strategic materials that would best support America’s war effort.
It was a necessary step, but one that turned out to be an unfortunate one for Percy Campbell Forsythe. On January 19, 1942, his ship, the City of Atlanta was in the middle of a run from New York to Savannah. The ship was unarmed and had no military escorts. It was off the coast of North Carolina, running closer to the coast than usual to reduce the likelihood of attack by German submarines. The tactic failed.
Just after 9:00 p.m., the City of Atlanta was hit by one torpedo from the German U-Boat U-123. The torpedo was a surface runner and struck the City of Atlanta at the waterline. The ship quickly took on water and began to list onto its side, making it very difficult for the crew of eight officers and 38 crewmen to abandon ship. The vessel rolled over and went down in about ten minutes, long before any of the four lifeboats could be launched. Percy Campbell Forsythe and all but three of his shipmates were killed. When help finally arrived about six hours later, only one officer and two men were found clinging to wreckage. The officer later died of his injuries.
Percy’s death impacted the family greatly. Ten months after his death, Percy’s son, Robert, ran off and lied about his age to join the U.S. Navy. Sadly, Nina Washington Forsythe survived her husband, Percy, by only two and a half years. She died in a Savannah, Georgia, hospital on August 5, 1944. The line continues through Robert Forsythe, the son of Percy and Nina Forsythe.
Being raised in poor island conditions while in America the discriminatory Jim Crow laws, the Disputed Election of 1876 and Little Big Horn were occurring. Arrriving in America at the beginning of the Railroad Era of the north, Thomas Edison, the Labor Movement and the Spanish-American War. They experienced the country’s Reconstruction leading to the Second Industrial Revolution as they were starting families. This family pushed onward through remarkably challenging and burdensome times, living stronger than before and providing us our opportunity!