Robert Purvis

By - Phillip Redd

Early Life

  • Robert Purvis was born on August 4, 1810 in Charleston, South Carolina, the second of three sons to a wealthy cotton broker and a free woman of color.
  • With the benefits of a financially successful family, Purvis began his opposition to slavery at a very young age.
  • When Purvis was nine, his father moved the family to Philadelphia where Purvis attended the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s Clarkson School. Shortly thereafter, Purvis continued his education at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
  • He was an active member with William Lloyd Garrisons American Anti-slavery Society in 1833. He traveled to Europe, meeting with British officials, in the name of stopping slavery.
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Why is he important ?

  • He traveled to Europe, meeting with British officials, in the name of stopping slavery.

  • For two decades, Purvis lived in an elegant home in Philadelphia where he entertained abolitionists from America and Europe working politically to end slavery.

  • It was here through his efforts with his father-in-law, that the career of his niece Charlotte Forten (educator) was influenced.

  • He welcomed the outbreak of the Civil War, urging President Lincoln to make emancipation his goal.

  • At the end of the war, Purvis was asked to head the Freedmen’s Bureau.


Continued .

  • He refused, fearing this was a ploy by President Andrew Johnson, to keep black support while attempting to destroy the bureau.
  • Initially a Republican, Purvis became disheartened as the party retreated from the principles it advocated during reconstruction.
  • In the mid-1870s, he was criticized for his position on the Fifteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1870.
  • A life-long supporter of women’s rights, Purvis argued that African- American men should not be enfranchised unless women received the vote.
  • In the last two decades of his life, he became an elder statesman, tending to his personal possessions at home.
  • Robert Purvis died in April 1898, in Philadelphia.
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Ending Life

  • Purvis remained active in his campaign to repeal Pennsylvania state laws that barred African Americans from voting.
  • In his effort, Purvis drafted the document "Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement" in 1838.
  • He also served as President of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society between 1845 and 1850, the first African American to lead a predominately white anti-slavery organization.
  • His political efforts were also directed toward women’s rights, prison reform and prohibition.
  • In 1883 Robert Purvis presided over the ceremonious 50 year anniversary meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Purvis died in Philadelphia on April 15, 1898.
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A Head Start in North Philly