Purvis, Harriet Forten (1810–1875)

views updated

Purvis, Harriet Forten (1810–1875)

African-American abolitionist. Name variations: Harriet Forten; Hattie Purvis. Born Harriet Davy Forten in 1810 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died of tuberculosis on June 11, 1875, in Philadelphia; daughter of James Forten (b. 1766, a wealthy businessman) and his second wife Charlotte (Vandine) Forten; sister of Sarah Forten Purvis (c. 1811–c. 1898) and Margaretta Forten (1808–1875); aunt of Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837–1914); attended a private black academy in Philadelphia; married Robert Purvis, on September 13, 1831; children: William Purvis (b. 1832); Joseph Parrish Purvis (b. 1837); Harriet Purvis (b. 1839, an abolitionist and suffragist); Charles Burleigh Purvis (b. 1840 or 1841); Henry Purvis (b. 1843 or 1844); Robert Purvis (b. 1844 or 1845); Granville Sharp Purvis (b. 1845 or 1846); Georgianna Purvis (b. 1848 or 1849).

Born into a well-to-do, free black family in Philadelphia in 1810, Harriet Forten Purvis was the second child of Charlotte Vandine Forten and James Forten, an entrepreneur. Harriet was named after the daughter of Robert Bridges, a white associate of her father's who helped him launch a sailmaking business.

Her family's wealth ensured an excellent education for Harriet and her siblings. James Forten did not want his children to attend the schools to which blacks were relegated, convinced they would receive an inadequate education. When he could not enroll them in some of Philadelphia's exclusive schools, he joined with Grace Bustill Douglass to set up their own school which was designed to offer its black students the same sort of curriculum as was offered in the city's white-only private academies. To supplement their education, Harriet and her sisters were tutored at home in music and languages. The Fortens had long been ardent champions of abolition, and their household often provided a forum for those of like mind, both black and white, including the abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

Harriet was to marry the wealthy Robert Purvis, the illegitimate son of William Purvis, an English immigrant who did well as a cotton merchant, and Harriet Judah (c. 1784–1869), a free woman of German-Jewish and North African lineage. Robert Purvis and his brother Joseph Purvis developed a close relationship with the Fortens. After the death of their father William, James Forten became almost a surrogate father to Robert who, while light-skinned enough to pass as white, impressed James with the pride he exhibited in his African heritage. Harriet and Robert were married on September 13, 1831, in a ceremony presided over by a white Episcopalian bishop.

After initially living with the Fortens, the couple moved in June 1832 to a two-story brick house on Philadelphia's Lombard Street which Robert purchased for about $3,000. There, later that year, the couple's first child, a son William, was born. Both Robert and Harriet were strong believers in abolition, a cause for which Robert lectured. In 1834, he sailed for England to spread the message there, while Harriet remained in Philadelphia to care for their son and advance the anti-slavery cause at home. A longtime member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, an interracial organization, Purvis served the group in a variety of capacities, as did her mother and her sisters Margaretta Forten and Sarah Forten (Purvis ). Purvis' brothers and her husband were all called upon to speak at the society's functions from time to time. Purvis often served on the committee responsible for planning the group's annual Christmas fair. In 1837, she was pregnant with her second child when she joined Margaretta and Sarah in attending the first Women's Anti-Slavery Convention (organized by Lucretia Mott ) in New York. When the second convention was held in Philadelphia the following year, she unwittingly became the subject of a violent protest when onlookers saw Robert, whom they took to be white, assist her from their carriage. A mob, mistaking them for an interracial couple, rioted, incorrectly concluding that this was a meeting of "amalgamationists," and the newly built Pennsylvania Hall, site of the convention, was destroyed. The mob scenes, however, left Harriet undeterred, and she would return a year later for Philadelphia's final female antislavery convention.

From 1845 to 1850, Robert was president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in which Harriet was also active, and the couple traveled frequently in support of abolition. In May 1840, the two attended the society's annual convention in Harrisburg, Purvis as a delegate from Philadelphia's Female Anti-Slavery Society. Not long after, the couple attended a meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York. In 1854, Purvis traveled with her younger brother Robert Bridges Forten to Boston, where runaway slave Anthony Burns was tried. The court's decision ordering Burns returned to his owner in Virginia left a lasting mark on their memories.

The Purvises' commitment to the abolitionist cause seemed to deepen as their family grew. Between 1832 and 1849, Harriet had a total of eight children, and she found herself facing the same prejudice her parents had combated years before to ensure a quality education for her and her siblings. With their children barred entrance to Philadelphia's better public schools due to their race, Robert refused to pay his school tax. Some of the older Purvis children were sent to integrated schools in New York and New Jersey. To see to the education of her younger children, Purvis enlisted the help of her niece Charlotte Forten Grimké (daughter of Robert Bridges Forten), in whom she took a particular interest. The Purvis family was now ensconced in a mansion on 104 acres in Philadelphia County's By-berry Township, for which Robert Purvis had paid $13,000.

Purvis had a lifelong love of literature, a passion she shared with her husband. The two became founding members of the Gilbert Lyceum, a society dedicated to the discussion of literary and cultural issues, which was unusual in the free black community of the time because of its acceptance of both male and female members. The Purvis household served as an intellectual meeting place for some of the more thoughtful and progressive members of Philadelphia society, and the family's dedication to the abolition of slavery attracted visits from some of the most outspoken abolitionists in the country, including William Lloyd Garrison, Sarah P. Remond, Susan B. Anthony , and Daniel Alexander Payne.

Not only did the Purvises spread the word on abolition, but they also broke the law in order to shelter runaway slaves. After hiding fugitives during the 1830s in their Philadelphia home, they had a secret room constructed in the Byberry house before they moved in. For many years, the Purvises opened their home to escaped slaves whom they fed, clothed, and financed, while arranging for them to make their way north to Canada. Among those whom they sheltered was Madison Washington, who went on to participate in a mutiny which would bring him and his fellow slaves aboard the Creole to freedom. The Purvises provided help to Joseph Cinque and other Amistad captives, and they took Daniel Webster into their home after his Philadelphia capture and subsequent release, arranging for his journey to Canada. After passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, the Purvises continued to struggle against the discrimination and injustice suffered by people of color in both the North and the South.

The Purvises lost three of their sons to tuberculosis, the disease that also claimed Purvis' life on June 11, 1875, in Philadelphia. She was buried in the city's Germantown section at the Friends Fair Hill Burial Ground. Robert outlived Harriet by nearly 23 years. Two of their sons followed in their footsteps, as did their daughter Hattie Purvis who gave her energies to abolition and then to the battle for the political rights of women.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania