Purvis, Robert

Robert Purvis (1810-1898)

Abolitionist and social activist

Born free in Charleston, South Carolina, Robert Purvis was sent at an early age to Philadelphia, where he was to champion the cause of freedom and equality for people of African descent. While attending Amherst College in New England, he met William Lloyd Garrison, whose writings influenced Purvis to devote his life to the liberation of African Americans. He was active in the colored convention movement in 1830, and served as vice president and corresponding secretary in 1833. When the Pennsylvania legislature enacted a law in 1838 to deprive blacks of the right to vote, he published Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement to the People of Pennsylvania. Purvis was active in many antislavery societies: he was a charter member of the Philadelphia Antislavery Society, president of the Pennsylvania Underground Railroad, chairman of the Underground Railroad Vigilance Committee, and was president of the Philadelphia Underground Railroad. Purvis refused to pay taxes when black children were excluded from the public schools in Byberry in 1853, and protested racial discrimination by the War Department during the Civil War, although he supported African-American enlistment in the Union Army.

Purvis was also involved in the preservation and perpetuation of African-American culture in Philadelphia. He proudly identified himself as an African-American and founded the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons in 1833. His son, Charles Burleigh Purvis, became the first Philadelphia black to graduate from medical school at Western Reserve School of Medicine in Clevelend, Ohio, in 1864, when Philadelphia institutions would not admit black students to medical school.

(From: Blockson, Charles L. Philadelphia's Guide: African-American State Historical Markers. Philadelphia: Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection / William Penn Foundation, 1992.)