August 4, 1810
April 19, 1898
Abolitionist and political leader Robert Purvis was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the second of three sons of William Purvis, a British cotton merchant, and Harriet Judah, a free woman of color. Although both his parents owned slaves, Robert credited his father with instilling in him a deep hatred of the "peculiar institution."
In 1819 William Purvis sent his family to Philadelphia, intending eventually to settle with them in England. The children were enrolled in the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's Clarkson School, and Robert later attended Amherst Academy in Massachusetts, a preparatory school affiliated with nearby Amherst College. In 1826 William Purvis died, leaving the bulk of his fortune—some $200,000—to his sons. When the eldest son died without issue, his brothers received his share. A shrewd businessman, Robert Purvis put his legacy to good use, investing in bank stock and real estate.
Light-skinned and wealthy, Purvis rejected suggestions that he relocate and "pass." In 1831 he married Harriet Forten, the daughter of African-American businessman and abolitionist James Forten. With his Forten inlaws he threw himself into the antislavery struggle. A tireless member of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, he sheltered runaways and conveyed them to the next "safe house" in his carriage. With William Lloyd Garrison, he was a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and in 1834 he crossed the Atlantic to meet leaders of the British antislavery movement. With his father-in-law, he helped steer white abolitionists, among them Garrison and Arthur Tappan, away from African colonization and toward a sweeping program designed to achieve racial equality. Purvis also had a profound influence on his young niece, educator and social reformer Charlotte Forten, who spent much of her early life in the Purvis household.
For two decades the Purvises lived in an elegant home in Philadelphia, where they entertained abolitionists from the United States and Europe. In 1842, with racial violence escalating, they moved to an estate in Byberry, some twelve miles outside Philadelphia.
Purvis welcomed the outbreak of the Civil War, demanding that President Abraham Lincoln make emancipation his goal. With the end of the war came an invitation to head the Freedmen's Bureau. However, Purvis declined the offer, fearing that this was a ploy by President Andrew Johnson to keep the support of African-American voters even as he set about destroying the bureau.
Initially a staunch Republican, Purvis became disheartened as the party retreated from the principles it espoused during Reconstruction. In the Philadelphia mayoral race of 1874, his endorsement of the Democratic candidate was denounced by other African-American leaders. He was also criticized for his stance on the Fifteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1870. A lifelong champion of women's rights, Purvis contended that African-American men should not be enfranchised unless women received the vote.
In the last two decades of his life Purvis assumed the role of an elder statesman. Never afraid to speak up, he took both major parties to task for, as he saw it, abandoning the struggle for racial justice. Robert Purvis died in Philadelphia at the age of eighty-seven, survived by his second wife and four of his eight children.
Boromé, Joseph A. "Robert Purvis and His Early Challenge to American Racism." Negro History Bulletin 30 (1967): 8–10.
julie winch (1996)
Updated by author 2005
Robert Purvis (1810-1898) was a radical African American abolitionist and reformer as well as a prosperous gentleman farmer and businessman.
Robert Purvis was born on Aug. 4, 1810, in Charleston, S.C., of a free woman of Moorish ancestry and a wealthy abolitionist-oriented English cotton broker. In 1819 Robert's father established a school for colored children in Philadelphia at his own expense. There Robert obtained a sound education. He continued his studies at Pittsfield Academy and then at Amherst College.
Purvis became actively involved in the antislavery movement when William Lloyd Garrison, while visiting his home, unfolded plans for publishing the Liberator. Purvis became a regular contributor to this paper. In 1833 he was one of the founders of the American Antislavery Society and served as vice president. He also helped organize the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society, serving as president and member of the executive committee.
Only through the intercession of President Andrew Jackson did Purvis receive passports for himself and his bride to go abroad, where they met numerous opponents of slavery. Returning to the United States, Purvis single-handedly rescued Basil Dorsey from the court house in Doylestown, Pa., in 1836, just as the slave catchers appeared with the magistrate's warrant to return him to slavery. Purvis then escorted Dorsey to safety.
In 1838 Purvis published a pamphlet protesting the legislative proposal to disenfranchise African Americans in Pennsylvania. That year he further organized the Underground Railroad with agents, black and white, in Newbern, N.C., Baltimore, Md., and Wilmington, Del. He condemned the Dred Scott decision in the harshest terms and risked his life to publicly praise John Brown. He continually attacked the movement to colonize African Americans in Africa.
Purvis worked unremittingly to convince the U.S. government to place the Civil War on an antislavery basis and to establish a new union from which slavery would be excluded forever. He urged not only utilization of black soldiers but also appointment of black officers. He softened his antislavery stand only when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which Purvis felt recognized blacks as citizens. His antislavery work ceased with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. In 1888 he presided at the semicentennial meeting of the Antislavery Society.
Purvis was also active in such organizations as the American Moral Reform Society, the Woman Suffrage Society, and the Committee of 100 for the Purification of Municipal Affairs in Philadelphia. As a gentleman farmer, he developed a showplace at Byberry and prizewinning livestock. He also owned a second farm and several pieces of real estate in Philadelphia, including mercantile property on Market Street. He died on April 15, 1898, in Philadelphia.
Biographical sketches of Purvis appear in Richard Bardolph, The Negro Vanguard (1959), and Wilhelmina S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1967). William Wells Brown reports personal impressions of Purvis in his The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (rev. ed. 1863). For commentary on Purvis's writings see Vernon Log-gins, The Negro Author: His Development in America (1931). James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (1964), and Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists (1969), discuss Purvis. □