Purvis, Sarah Forten (c. 1811–c. 1898)

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Purvis, Sarah Forten (c. 1811–c. 1898)

African-American poet and abolitionist. Name variations: Sarah Forten; (pseudonyms) Ada, Magawisca, Sarah Louisa. Born Sarah Louisa Forten sometime between 1811 and 1814 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died around 1898 (though some sources indicate as early as 1883) in Philadelphia; daughter of James Forten (b. 1766, a wealthy businessman) and his second wife Charlotte (Vandine) Forten; sister of Harriet Forten Purvis (1810–1875) and Margaretta Forten (1808–1875); aunt of Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837–1914); educated in a private black academy in Philadelphia; married Joseph Purvis, on January 7, 1838 (died 1857); children: Joseph Purvis (b. 1838 or 1839); James Purvis (c. 1839–1870); William Purvis (b. 1841 or 1842); Sarah Purvis (b. 1842 or 1843); Emily Purvis (1844–1870s); Alfred Purvis (c. 1845–1865); Harriet Purvis (b. 1847 or 1848); Alexander Purvis (b. 1850).

Selected writings:

"Grave of the Slave" (1831); "Hours of Childhood"; "Past Joys"; "The Abuse of Liberty"; "The Slave"; "The Slave Girl's Farewell." Also contributed poems, letters, and articles to the Liberator, a prominent anti-slavery magazine published by William Lloyd Garrison, when she was 19 or 20.

Like her mother Charlotte Vandine Forten and sisters Margaretta Forten and Harriet Forten Purvis , Sarah Forten Purvis was a dedicated abolitionist. She had a gift for poetry and writing in general which she put to work in the struggle to end slavery in the United States.

She was born Sarah Louisa Forten sometime between 1811 and 1814 in Philadelphia, the third of eight children of wealthy businessman James Forten and his second wife Charlotte Vandine Forten. Her father refused to send his children to Philadelphia's blacks-only schools, which offered a level of education he considered inferior to that offered to the city's white children. Banding together with a number of other affluent black parents, he and Grace Bustill Douglass set up a school which offered its students an education equal to that of Philadelphia's whites-only private schools. Sarah and her siblings were also tutored at home in such subjects as music and languages, and visitors to the Forten home on Lombard Street described the daughters as refined and talented. Like some of her brothers, Sarah was noted for her singing voice. She was also an avid reader.

Raised in a family with a strong commitment to abolition, Purvis was keenly aware of the horrors of slavery and racial prejudice despite the degree of insulation provided to the Forten children by the family's wealth. In an 1837 letter to abolitionist Angelina Grimké , she wrote: "For our own family—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…. 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 the mortifications which might otherwise ensue."

While only 19 or 20, Purvis began submitting poems under the name "Ada" to the Liberator, an abolitionist journal published by William Lloyd Garrison. The first of these, "The Grave of the Slave," observed that in death the enslaved would know equality and rest. The poem appeared in the January 22, 1831, issue and concluded with the words:

Poor slave! Shall we sorrow that death was thy friend,
The last, and the kindest, that heaven could send?
The grave to the weary is welcomed and blest;
And death, to the captive, is freedom and rest.

The identity of "Ada" was disclosed to Garrison by her father following the journal's publication of two poems by Purvis.

In late 1833, Purvis, along with her mother and older sisters Harriet and Margaretta, joined in the founding of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, an organization she would later serve as a member of its board of managers. She also participated in the society's campaigns to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Purvis was to remain active in the affairs of the society until she married and left Philadelphia. Her life—friends, correspondence, poetry, and activism—was dominated by the cause of abolition. In February 1834, she published "An Appeal to Woman," likely her most well-known poem, in the Liberator. (More than three years later, a portion of this poem would be reprinted by delegates to the first women's antislavery convention who included it in their Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free State.) In the poem, Purvis looked to white women "to nobly dare to act a Christian's part":

Dare to be good, as thou canst dare be great,
Despise the taunts of envy, scorn and hate;
Our 'skins may differ,' but from thee we claim
A sister's privilege, in a sister's name.

In a civil ceremony, Sarah Forten married Joseph Purvis on January 7, 1838, in Burlington Country, New Jersey. Joseph was the younger brother of Robert Purvis, who had married Sarah's sister Harriet. The Purvis brothers were the sons of cotton merchant William Purvis, an English immigrant, and his mistress, the free-born Harriet Judah , a native of Charleston, South Carolina, whose ancestry was German-Jewish and North African. Joseph and Robert were the primary heirs of their father's estate, and Joseph used his inheritance to acquire a 200-acre farm in Bensalem, Bucks County.

Shortly after their marriage, Joseph brought Sarah to live on the farm, where she found a very different life. In the 12 years following her marriage, Purvis gave birth to eight children. Her responsibilities as a farm wife and mother of a large family left her little time to write poetry. (Although poems signed "Ada" continued to make appearances in antislavery works, these are thought to have been written by another author due to their references to a childhood spent in New England and to the Quaker dating style employed by the author.) By producing grain, meat, dairy products, and honey, the farm provided well for the family in the 1840s and early 1850s. Like his brother, Joseph traded in real estate, and until his death the family enjoyed some of the benefits of wealth. For instance, the federal census records of 1850 indicate that he was able to employ six people at the farm, two servants to be of help to Sarah in the house and four farm workers to help in the fields.

His sudden death in 1857, however, marked the beginning of an end to Sarah's financial comfort. He left no will and cash reserves were insufficient to pay off his debts. Sarah decided to waive her right to act as administrator, and to satisfy Joseph's creditors authorities ordered the sale of portions of his real-estate holdings. With children still to raise, Purvis was left with no money to properly maintain the Bensalem farm, which gradually slipped into a state of disrepair. By 1871, the estate of Joseph Purvis had shrunk to three small properties, totaling 40 acres and two dwellings. By 1875, Sarah was forced into bankruptcy, and her meager possessions were sold off under court order.

During less than a decade, Purvis experienced the loss of three of her children. She returned to the family home on Philadelphia's Lombard Street with two others, Annie and William. After the death of her unmarried older sister Margaretta in 1875, Sarah assumed Margaretta's responsibility for running the household. Sarah Purvis continued to live in the Forten family home until her death, the exact date of which is not known. She is buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of St. James the Less, an Episcopal church in Philadelphia.


Winch, Julie. "Sarah Forten Purvis," in Notable Black American Women. Jessie Carney Smith, ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania