Robert Purvis: Friend of the Friends

Across the road from Byberry Meeting in the 19th century, on the northeast edge of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, stood Harmony Hall, the estate of Robert Purvis, a colored gentleman farmer, organizer of the first underground railroad, abolitionist, and an ardent spokesman for full equality for women, Native Americans, and persons of color. Two of Purvis’s sons are buried in the meeting’s burial ground, and near the meetinghouse stands Byberry Hall, built by Purvis in 1846 and given to the meeting as a place for the community to debate issues of human rights.

Robert Purvis and his wife, Harriet Forten Purvis, were close friends with James and Lucretia Mott. Lucretia often preached at Byberry Meeting, and the Purvises attended meeting at those times. Hattie Purvis, their daughter, went to school with Lucretia’s niece Ellen Wright and corresponded with her for many years. Ellen had a flirtation with the Purvises’ son, Robert Jr. When first son William and then Robert Jr. died tragically, Lucretia Mott preached at their memorial services.

Was Robert Purvis a member of Byberry Meeting? Henry Cadbury thought it likely and included him in his famous study of Negro Membership in the Society of Friends, published in 1934. Purvis’s belief system was very close to that of liberal Friends. He often said his religion was to deal justly and to love mercy, to treat all people with perfect equality. He believed that those who struggled for justice were divinely directed. But there is no trace of him in the minutes of Byberry Meeting, nor any mention of such affiliation in his private papers. He remained throughout his lifetime a friend of the Friends.

Robert Purvis was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1810, the son of a well-to-do British cotton merchant, William Purvis, and his "beloved friend" Harriet Judah, whose mother had been a slave and father a Sephardic Jew. Dido Badaracka, his grandmother, had been born in Morocco, captured by slave kidnappers at the age of 12, and brought to the slave market in Charleston. Here she was bought by an elderly woman who took pity on her, taught her to read, and left instructions that she be freed when her benefactor died.

As a result of his mixed parentage, Robert Purvis was extremely light-skinned, and frequently mistaken for white. But he identified with his mother and grandmother, and through them with all persons of color. Yet he rejected the appellation African-American. "There is not a single African in the United States," he told a Philadelphia audience in 1886, "We are to the manner born; we are native Americans." He was a proud and sometimes bitter man.

When he was nine years old, Robert came to live in Philadelphia with his father, mother, and two brothers. William Purvis had intended to take his sons to England to educate them properly, but he became ill and died, leaving an estate to his "beloved friend" Harriet and his sons. Robert was educated at Clarkson Hall, the school run by the Pennsylvania Aboli-tion Society, and at Amherst Academy in Massachusetts. Here he developed a literary and oratorical style that marked him throughout his long life.

Returning to Philadelphia, Purvis became a businessman, buying and selling real estate, and augmenting the property left to him by his father. He became in time one of the richest of Philadelphia blacks. He was a founding member of the colored convention movement, and of the American Moral Reform Society that grew out of it. In 1833 he was one of two blacks to attend the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Garrisonian group that proposed an immediate end to slavery. John Greenleaf Whittier, also attending, wrote down his first impressions: "A young man rose to speak whose appearance at once arrested my attention. I think I never saw a finer face and figure and his manner, words, and bearing were in keeping. ‘Who is he?’ I asked one of the Pennsylvania delegates. ‘Robert Purvis, of this city, a colored man,’ was the answer."

In these early years, Purvis was much influenced by James Forten, a wealthy black sailmaker and patriot. In 1832 Purvis married Harriet (Hattie) Davy Forten, Forten’s daughter, a friend from childhood, and with her had eight children. Harriet was of a much darker complexion than Robert, and they were sometimes mistaken for an interracial couple, a circumstance that infuriated the proud Robert. A strong supporter of women’s rights, Robert encouraged Harriet to be active in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, in the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, in the Colored Free Produce Association, and in several literary societies, and provided her with household help.

In their home on Lombard Street, the Purvises often hid escaping slaves. In August 1837 Robert helped organize the Vigilance Committee to watch for slave catchers, and to expedite the escape of slaves through the greater Philadelphia valley, passing them from safe house to safe house. This was originally an interracial committee but became all black in 1839 when Purvis became its president. Under this group, more slaves were aided on their way to Canada and freedom than under the later and better-publicized underground railroad headed by William Still.

In 1838, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was considering revising its constitution to restrict suffrage to white men only. Robert Purvis wrote a protest, "Appeal of Forty Thous-and Citizens, Threatened with Disenfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania," which argued that blacks had helped build Pennsylvania and had as good a right to citizenship as any. Despite his eloquence, the Pennsylvania Assembly voted to exclude blacks. Thereafter, Purvis redoubled his oratory and refused to pay a portion of his state taxes. His letters to the papers on this and similar subjects resulted in his house on Lombard Street being repeatedly mobbed by armed men. Finally, fearing for his family, he decided to move to Byberry.

The Purvises had been members of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church at 5th and Walnut, and owned a pew there. After the move to Byberry they broke their ties to this church, charging that it had become proslavery, and sold their pew. They might then have been expected to join Byberry Meeting. But a series of unfortunate incidents convinced Robert Purvis that Friends, with whom he worked closely on several antislavery societies, were not as free of prejudice as he might have wished.

He was aware of the prejudice that Grace Douglass and her daughter, Sarah Mapps Douglass, had experienced in being asked to sit at a separate bench in several of the city’s meetinghouses. But he did not experience exclusion personally until his own children were denied access to the Byberry public school. In 1853 he refused to pay that portion of his property tax that went to support the schools, and he wrote:

I have borne this outrage ever since the innovation upon the usual practice of admitting all the children of the township into the public schools, and at considerable expense, have been obliged to obtain the services of private teachers to instruct my children, while my school tax is greater, with a single exception, than that of any other citizen of the township. It is true, (and the outrage is made but the more glaring and insulting): I was informed by a pious Quaker director, with sanctifying grace, imparting, doubtless, an unctuous glow to his saintly prejudices, that a school in the village of Mechanicsville was appropriated for "thine." The miserable shanty, with all its appurtenances, on the very line of the township, to which this benighted follower of George Fox alluded, is, as you know, the most flimsy and ridiculous sham which any tool of a skin-hating aristocracy have resorted to, to cover or protect his servility.

Purvis knew that other Quakers, chiefly those affiliated with the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, did not believe as this school director believed. Nevertheless, it hurt. At about the same time, his son, Robert Purvis Jr., escorting two young black women, Sarah Remond and Annie Wood, was turned away from the Franklin Institute because of their color. What upset him chiefly in these situations is that the good citizens of Philadelphia, Quakers included, rarely rose in protest against these gratuitous expressions of prejudice.

Few of the Quaker schools at this time accepted blacks, believing that they were doing their duty by providing for separate education. The Institute for Colored Youth, first on Lombard Street and then on Bainbridge Street, was an excellent example of this. But the Byberry Friends School was the exception, admitting the Purvis children at various times in their educational careers. Since the school was small, it was not always able to provide a teacher for each of the various age groups, and it was then that Robert Purvis wanted his children to be able to attend the public schools. Robert’s son Charles Purvis, who became head of the medical department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., wrote to the Byberry Friends School reunion in 1906 that he and his brothers and sisters were among the attenders: "The approach of the early teachers of Byberry Friends School in 1850 was instrumental in making many good citizens, strong men and women with patriotic hearts and lofty moral natures."

Still, prejudice was everywhere. In 1853 the Philadelphia Chicken Fanciers refused to exhibit Purvis’s chickens, although he had won first prize in the past three exhibits. When he and Hattie went to New York to attend the National Anti-Slavery Conventions, they could not stay in a hotel, but had to be housed with local abolitionists and reformers, such as Abby Hopper Gibbons, who were willing to receive black guests.

Robert Purvis had long opposed the American Colonization Society and its plan to persuade free American blacks to emigrate to Africa and settle in Sierra Leone or Liberia, insisting that he and they had every right to stay on the soil on which they were born. But in 1853 he and Harriet thought for a while of moving to England, not for their own sakes, but for that of their children. Robert had visited England in 1832 and had been impressed with the comparative lack of prejudice. Ultimately they decided against it, and Robert continued to decry colonization. In 1853 a number of antislavery Friends, tired of restrictions on their activities imposed by their individual meetings, issued a call for the development of a new yearly meeting to be called the Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends at Longwood. Robert and Harriet signed the call and attended several of the yearly gatherings, with Robert serving on the antislavery committee. They did not, however, formally join this group. There had been too many disappointments with Friends in the past.

In 1874 Robert and Harriet Purvis moved from Byberry to a house at 1601 Mt. Vernon Street in Philadelphia. When Robert was appointed a trustee of the Freedmen’s Bank, they took rooms in Washington, but retained their Philadel-phia home. In 1875 Harriet died of the tuberculosis that had already carried off two of their sons. Robert bought a lot at Fair Hill Burial Ground, doubtless through his friendship with Lucretia Mott. Here, in addition to Harriet, he buried a daughter Georgiana in 1877, and moved his mother and two brothers from graves at St. Thomas Church at 5th and Walnut in 1887.

Following the death of Harriet, many of the Purvises’ old Byberry neighbors had sought to console Robert. One of these was Tacy Townsend, the descendant of an old Quaker family in the area. Tacy, 17 years Robert’s junior, was a poet who had been close to both Harriet and Hattie, had been a friend of Harriet’s niece Charlotte Forten, and had written a poem about Joseph Purvis, a son of the Purvises who had died young. On March 5, 1878, Robert and Tacy were married in a Quaker ceremony in Bristol, Bucks County. Faced with disownment for marrying a man "not in membership with Friends," Tacy withdrew her membership from Bristol Meeting.

For the next 20 years Robert lived contentedly with his Quaker wife, supporting her in her writing. He kept in touch with such old friends as Lucretia Mott and John Greenleaf Whittier, and worked with William Still to bring about reform in the Philadelphia city government, always urging that more blacks be hired for city jobs. He was also active in the cause of women’s rights, representing the Pennsylvania Suffrage Association at national meetings. He was proud of his daughter, Hattie, who became active in the National Woman’s Suffrage Associa-tion. Hattie, he said, bore the "double curse of sex and color." In 1888 he was honored by Susan B. Anthony at a meeting of the International Council of Women held in Washington for his pioneer stand for the rights of women. As a member of the Universal Peace Union, he helped defend the rights of Native Americans. He believed that all human rights were related to one another.

When he died, in April 1898, he was buried at Fair Hill Burial Ground along with his first wife, Harriet. The papers carried long obituaries, and the American Negro Historical Society held a large memorial meeting at Bethel Methodist Episcopal Church. He was praised for his work for human rights, not only in the antislavery cause but also in his defense of the independence of Ireland, in his effort for justice to the Indians, "in his pronounced views on the right of woman and his general advocacy of the reformation of the body politic." Isaiah Wear summed it up in a few words: "This great man who never in his public advocacy for human rights was heard to urge the claims of a recognition of race but rather a forgetfulness of all racial ideas and a recognition of manhood rights regardless of either race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

He was a friend of whom Friends could and can be proud.

Margaret Hope Bacon

Margaret Hope Bacon, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, is a lecturer and author of 13 books on various aspects of Quaker history and biography, and vice president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. She is writing a book on Robert Purvis. © 2002 Margaret Hope Bacon