Robert Purvis dedicated his life to ending slavery and defending human rights
Charleston-born Robert Purvis co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In the annals of American slavery, Charleston is well known as the city where the enslaved outnumbered the free and a war defending slavery began. Lesser known is the fact that a local man helped found a national organization dedicated to the institution’s end.
Robert Purvis was born here on August 4, 1810, the son of William, an English merchant, and Harriet, a free woman of color. His mother’s parents were Baron Judah of a prominent Charleston Jewish family and Dido Badaraka, who was enslaved in North Africa, brought here, and eventually freed. The Purvises left in 1819 seeking opportunities in Philadelphia.
Highly educated and well-off, Robert Purvis married Harriet Forten, whose niece Charlotte would marry Francis Grimké, the once-enslaved nephew of abolitionists Sarah and Angelia Grimké. With William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Theodore Weld (Angelina Grimké’s husband), Purvis launched the American Anti-Slavery Society and served as its vice president from 1842 to 1864. As head of Philadelphia’s vigilance committee protecting fugitives, Purvis was also a leader in the Underground Railroad and presided over the biracial Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society while being an outspoken defender of women’s rights. He was a member of the Equal Rights Association, its first vice president under Lucretia Mott, and was present for the founding of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association.
Purvis’s death in 1898 was national news, and on the anniversary of his birth, we recognize this native son for his contributions to the country.