Birthplace: Charleston, SC
Location of death: Philadelphia, PA
Cause of death: Stroke
Remains: Buried, Fair Hill Burial Ground, Philadelphia, PA
Race or Ethnicity: Multiracial
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Activist, Author
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: "President" of the Underground Railroad
Abolitionist Robert Purvis was born to a half-white half-black woman, and his father was a white man from England. His father settled in South Carolina but never owned slaves and became an outspoken abolitionist. As a young man, Purvis was befriended by anti-slavery activist Benjamin Lundy, and at his father's death Purvis inherited a substantial sum, about $120,000. He attended Amherst College, where he was expelled over a prank, the nature of which has been lost to history. His skin was light enough that he could easily have passed for white, but he instead dedicated his life to securing freedom for slaves, often at his own peril.
He married abolitionist Harriet Forten Purvis, and their home became a vital waystation for escaped slaves on the way to freedom in Canada and elsewhere, and Purvis was unofficially hailed as "President of the Underground Railroad". Records of such activities were, of course, scant, but Purvis once estimated that over the course of thirty years until slavery was abolished in America, an average of one escaped slave daily ate or slept in his home -- which would mean that nearly 11,000 newly-freed souls found refuge under his roof.
He was founding member of William Lloyd Garrison's American Antislavery Society in Philadelphia, and established the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, encouraging literacy and learning. He was a proponent and practitioner of what was called the "free produce" movement, insisting that no food be served in his home if slaves had been involved in its cultivation. Also active in his support for women's rights, he was the first Vice President of the Woman's Suffrage Society, while Lucretia Mott was the group's President.
When Pennsylvania proposed barring out-of-state free blacks from settling in the state, Purvis chaired the committee that assembled Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement, and spoke widely on African-Americans' accomplishments and contributions to the state's economic and cultural strength. Purvis's Appeal was for decades among the most widely-read and influential abolitionist documents.
After his home was repeatedly beset by angry white mobs, Purvis moved from Philadelphia to a quieter adjacent town, Byberry (ironically now part of Philadelphia). In 1853 the town of Byberry banned black children from school, but when Purvis -- one of the town's richest citizens -- announced that he would respond by refusing to pay his taxes, the town's exclusionary edict was almost immediately reversed.
After the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision, he wrote that he owed no allegiance to a nation that held that blacks had "no rights a white man was bound to respect". With the outbreak of the US Civil War, he called for widespread black enlistment in the Union Army, and after President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Purvis stated unequivocally, "I am proud to be an American citizen".
Father: William Purvis (cotton broker, d. 1826 typhus)
Mother: Harriet Judah Purvis
Brother: William Purvis (b. 1806, d. 1828 tuberculosis)
Brother: Joseph Purvis (b. 1812, d. 1857)
Wife: Harriet Forten Purvis (abolitionist, b. 1810, d. 1875)
Son: William P. Purvis (b. 1832, d. 1857)
Son: Robert Purvis Jr. (b. 1834, d. 1862)
Son: Joseph Parrish Purvis (b. 1836, d. 1851)
Daughter: Harriet Purvis (b. 1839, d. 1905)
Son: Charles Burleigh Purvis (physician, b. 14-Apr-1842, d. 30-Jan 30-1929)
Son: Henry William Purvis (b. 1844, d. 28-Sep-1907)
Son: Granville Sharp Purvis (b. 1846, d. 1907)
Daughter: Georgianna Purvis (b. 1848, d. 1877)
High School: Clarkson Hall, Philadelphia, PA
University: Amherst College (expelled)
American Antislavery Society (Vice President)
Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (President, 1840-45)
Woman's Suffrage Society (Vice President)
Expelled from School
English Ancestry (paternal)
German Ancestry (maternal)
Moorish Ancestry (maternal)
Jewish Ancestry (maternal)
Author of books:
Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement (1838)
Speeches and Letters (1862)
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