Robert Purvis


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(1810–1898), lecturer, pamphleteer, and antislavery activist.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, to a wealthy English businessman and the free-born daughter of a slave, Robert Purvis was sent to Philadelphia at the age of nine for private schooling. When his father died in 1826, Purvis inherited $120,000, which gave him financial independence and allowed him to devote the rest of his life to reformist causes.

In 1830, Purvis met Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison whose crusade against slavery focused Purvis's sympathies for less-privileged African Americans and offered him a means of striking back at the racial discrimination he experienced firsthand. Purvis joined Garrison in the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. In the same year, he led in the organization of the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, dedicated to “promoting among our rising youth, a proper cultivation for literary pursuits.” When the Pennsylvania legislature proposed to disfranchise the African American voters of the state, Purvis headed a convention of blacks in 1838 to protest the measure. As chair of a committee selected to speak for the convention, Purvis drafted an eighteen-page pamphlet entitled Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchise-ment, to the People of Pennsylvania (1838), which stressed the accomplishments and contributions of the African American citizenry to the economic, political, and cultural life of the state and invoked the “no taxation without representation” theme of the Declaration of Independence as a precedent for opposition to disfranchisement. Despite the vigor and logic of Purvis's argument, the Appeal did not succeed. But the Appeal was widely admired in antislavery circles and often reprinted and cited in the abolitionist press. Purvis's speeches denoucing the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857 cemented his reputation as an important antislavery orator. In 1883, he coedited the History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania, including a detailed autobiographical narrative.

Carter G. Woodson, ed., The Mind of the Negro as Reflected in Letters Written During the Crisis 1800–1860, 1926.Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 1969.Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis (2007).

William L. Andrews

Subjects: United States History — Literature.

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