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. □