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Robert Purvis circa 1840-1849

Robert Purvis (August 4, 1810 – April 15, 1898) was an antebellum African-American abolitionist in the United States. He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, educated at Amherst College, and lived most of his life in Philadelphia. Purvis and his brothers were three-quarters European by ancestry and inherited considerable wealth from their native English father. They chose to identify with the black community and use their education and wealth to support abolition of slavery and anti-slavery activities, as well as projects in education to help African Americans advance.


Early life

Purvis was born in 1810 in Charleston, South Carolina. His mother Harriet Judah was a free woman of color, the daughter of former slave Dido Badaraka. In his late age, Purvis told a reporter that his grandmother Badaraka had been kidnapped at age 12 from Morocco, transported to the United States on a slave ship, and sold as a slave in Charleston. He described her as a full-blooded Moor: dark-skinned with tightly curled hair. She was freed at age 19 by her owner's will.[1][2] Harriet's father was Baron Judah, of European Jewish descent.[3] He was the third of ten children of Hillel Judah, a German Jewish immigrant, and his Sephardic Jewish wife, Abigail Seixas, a native of Charleston.

Although Purvis told a reporter that Badaraka and Judah had married, his biographer thought that unlikely, given the social prominence of the Judah family in Charleston. She also discovered that the Judah family owned slaves. Badaraka and Judah did have a relationship of several years, bearing Harriet and a son together. (In 1790 Judah broke off his relationship with Badaraka when he moved with his family from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia and then in 1791 to Richmond, Virginia. He married a Jewish woman in Richmond and had four additional children with her.)[4]

Purvis' father was English native William Purvis from Northumberland, who came to the United States as a young man. He became a a wealthy cotton broker in Charleston and a naturalized US citizen. William and some of his brothers had come to South Carolina to make their fortunes. After their father died when they were children, their mother moved the family to Edinburgh, Scotland for her sons' education.[3][5]

William and Harriet lived together as man and wife. Purvis was substantially older than Harriet Judah, and the couple had three sons: William born in 1806, Robert born in 1810, and Joseph born in 1812.[6] In 1819 the Purvis family moved north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the boys attended the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society's Clarkson School. William Purvis was planning to consolidate his business affairs and return with his family to England, where he thought his sons would have better opportunities. He did not succeed in completing the move before his death.

Robert and Joseph Purvis both studied at Amherst College in Massachusetts, as their father wanted them to be educated as gentlemen. They returned to Philadelphia, where their family was among the black elite. After their father died in 1826, Purvis and his brothers were to share an estate worth $250,000. In 1828 Purvis' older brother William died of tuberculosis, which resulted in Robert and Joseph's having increased shares of the estate. The wealth helped them pay for their political activities and public service.[7]

Political life

In 1833, Purvis helped abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia and signed its "Declaration of Sentiments". Purvis was the last surviving member of the society.[3]

Also in 1833, Purvis helped establish the Library Company of Colored People, modeled after the Library Company of Philadelphia, a subscription organization. With Garrison's support, Purvis traveled to England to meet leading abolitionists.

In 1838, he drafted the "Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement"', which urged the repeal of a new state constitutional amendment disfranchising free African Americans. Because of widespread tensions and fears among whites following Nat Turner's slave rebellion of 1831, Purvis was not successful in dissuading state legislators from restricting African Americans' political rights.

From 1845-1850, Purvis served as president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. As a supporter of the Underground Railroad, Purvis served as chairman of the General Vigilance Committee from 1852-1857. According to his records, Purvis estimated that from 1831 until 1861, he helped one slave per day achieve freedom, aiding a total of more than 9,000 slaves to escape to the North. He used his own house, located outside the city, as a station on the Underground Railroad.[3]

Purvis supported many progressive causes beyond abolition. He served as the first vice-president of the Woman's Suffrage Society, when Lucretia Mott served as president.[3] He also supported temperance and similar social issues. He believed in integrated groups working for greater progress for all. By the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, Purvis was in his late 50s and became less active in political affairs.

Marriage and family

In 1832, Purvis married Harriet Forten, daughter of wealthy African-American sailmaker and prominent abolitionists James and Charlotte Forten of Philadelphia. Like her parents, brothers and sisters, Harriet Forten Purvis was active in anti-slavery groups in the city.[8]

The Purvises had five children, including son Charles B. Purvis, who became a surgeon and professor for 30 years in the medical school at Howard University. In addition, they raised Harriet's niece Charlotte Forten Grimké after her mother died. In her later life, Harriet Forten Purvis lectured publicly against segregation and for expanded suffrage for all citizens.[8]

After Harriet died, Purvis married Tacy Townsend, his second wife, who was of European descent. [9]


  1. ^ Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, pp.7-8
  2. ^ Bob Bankard, "The Passage to Freedom: The Underground Railroad", 3 March 2008 [1], accessed 3 May 2008
  3. ^ a b c d e [2] "ROBERT PURVIS DEAD.; Anti-Slavery Leader Expires in Philadelphia, Aged 87 --His Work for the Black Race", New York Times, 16 April 1898, accessed 3 May 2008
  4. ^ Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, pp.7-9
  5. ^ Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, p. 11
  6. ^ Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, p.11
  7. ^ Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, pp.21 and 23
  8. ^ a b Africans in America/Part 3/"The Forten Women", WGBH Educational Foundation, 1998, accessed 4 May 2008
  9. ^ Bob Bankard, "The Passage to Freedom: The Underground Railroad", 3 March 2008. accessed 3 May 2008

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