Robert Purvis (August 4, 1810 – April 15, 1898) was an 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.
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. His father was the English immigrant William Purvis. Purvis told a reporter that his grandmother Badaraka had been kidnapped at age 12 from Morocco, transported to the colonies 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 master's will. Harriet's father was Baron Judah, of European Jewish descent. 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.
Purvis said his grandparents 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 had owned slaves. Badaraka and Judah did have a relationship of several years, and they had 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. In 1791 he moved to Richmond, Virginia. There he married a Jewish woman and had four children with her.)
William Purvis was from Northumberland, and he had come to the United States as a young man. He became 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.
William Purvis and Harriet Judah 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. In 1819 the Purvis family moved north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the boys attended the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society's Clarkson School. Purvis planned to consolidate his business affairs and return with his family to England, where he thought his sons would have better opportunities. He died before they could move.
As their father wanted his sons to be educated as gentlemen, Robert and Joseph Purvis both studied at Amherst College in Massachusetts. 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.
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.
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.
Purvis supported many progressive causes beyond abolition. With his good friend Lucretia Mott, he supported women's rights. When Mott was president, he was a member of the American Equal Rights Association. Purvis also attended the founding meeting of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association. 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 Davy 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, including the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society.
The Purvises had eight children, including son Charles Burleigh Purvis (1841-1926), 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.
After Harriet died, Purvis married Tacy Townsend, who was of European descent.
- Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, pp.7-8
- Bob Bankard, "The Passage to Freedom: The Underground Railroad", 3 March 2008 , accessed 3 May 2008
-  "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
- Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, pp.7-9
- Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, p. 11
- Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, p.11
- Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis, Albany: State University of New York, 2007, pp.21 and 23
- Africans in America/Part 3/"The Forten Women", WGBH Educational Foundation, 1998, accessed 4 May 2008
- Bob Bankard, "The Passage to Freedom: The Underground Railroad", 3 March 2008. accessed 3 May 2008