Abolitionist and Suffragist
Harriet Forten Purvis was an African-American abolitionist and suffragist who helped establish the first women’s abolitionist group for blacks and whites, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. She fought against segregation and for the right for blacks to vote after the Civil War.
Harriet Davy Forten was born in 1810 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of wealthy African-American inventor and businessman James Forten and educator and abolitionist Charlotte Vandine Forten. Hers was the most well-known black family in the city, who, according to William Lloyd Garrison, “have few superiors in refinement, in moral worth, in all that makes the human character worthy of admiration and praise.”
Marriage and Family
On September 13, 1831, Harriet Forten married Robert Purvis, a light-skinned African-American Robert Purvis, an abolitionist and anti-slavery lecturer from South Carolina. Like Harriet’s father, Purvis was a wealthy man. The couple employed servants, making it possible for Harriet to work actively on the social reform causes she so loved. She pursued a public career with her husband’s wholehearted support.
In 1850, Harriet’s eight children ranged from one to eighteen years of age. Her son Charles Burleigh Purvis attended Oberlin College and Wooster Medical College (Western Reserve). Charles served as a physician, a medical school educator, and the first African-American to run a civilian hospital. During the Civil War, he served as both a nurse and a physician for the Union Army.
Harriet also raised her niece, Charlotte Forten following the death of Charlotte’s mother. Following in her relatives’ footsteps, Charlotte became an anti-slavery activist, poet, and educator.
Harriet Forten Purvis worked side by side with her husband in the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad. Pro-slavery forces in the city rallied against blacks and whites who aided refugee slaves, which erupted in race riots and violence in the 1830s. In 1834, forty-four churches and other buildings owned by blacks were set on fire.
Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society
Harriet Purvis helped eighteen women establish the first women’s abolitionist group for blacks and whites, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (PFASS) in December 1833 – with the aid of her mother Charlotte and her sisters Margaretta and Sarah. Harriet co-chaired the PFASS fairs from 1840 through 1861 and often hosted visiting fellow activists at her elegant English-style house.
Women’s Anti-Slavery Convention
Harriet Purvis attended the Women’s Anti-Slavery Convention in New York in 1837 with two of her sisters. In 1838, the convention was held in Philadelphia at the newly built Pennsylvania Hall. Robert Purvis helped Harriet out of the carriage, angry people looking on obviously thought that they were an interracial couple. The following day, a pro-slavery crowd set the Hall on fire and watched it burn to the ground.
The convention then convened at teacher and abolitionist Sarah Pugh‘s school. Black and white women participated as equals in the organization, which was rare at the time. Not put off by the riot the previous year, Harriet served as a delegate at the 1838 and 1839 conventions. Unable to rent a hall in Philadelphia in 1839, the convention met at a riding stable.
Vigilant Association of Philadelphia
In August 1837 Robert Purvis organized the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia to publicly promote antislavery ideology and “to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress.” The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia was the secret Auxiliary of the Association; its purpose was to raise revenue and have resources available to assist runaway slaves while they stayed in or passed through Philadelphia. Such assistance could include food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medical attention, and legal fees.
The Vigilant Committee operated between 1837 and 1852 and made Philadelphia an important stop along the Underground Railroad. Harboring fugitive slaves, however, was an illegal and dangerous business. Although Pennsylvania had passed Personal Liberty Laws which expanded the rights of fugitives and severe laws to punish slave-catchers, abolitionists could not depend upon the court system to deliver freedom to runaway slaves.
Also, not all northern citizens shared their anti-slavery beliefs. They attempted to disrupt escapes, reported those who sheltered runaways, kidnapped runaways to collect rewards, and sometimes, lashed out against those who assisted fugitives. There were also laws that could be used against those assisting the runaways. To protect members and donors from possible reprisal from the slaves’ owners or agents, the acts and meetings of the Vigilant Committee were kept secret.
Considerable expenses could be incurred when assisting the runaways. Food and transportation were essential costs, coupled with additional expenses such as clothing, shelter, and medicine. Some of the expenses were met through membership dues. Members were to pay $0.25 upon joining, with the intention of contributing a minimum of $0.75 annually. Additional funds were sought from outside of the organization. To serve this purpose, in a meeting in 1839, Jacob C. White, who was then secretary, was given the role as the Committee’s sole agent responsible for collecting revenue from non-members.
At the same meeting during which White received his appointment, Robert Purvis was elected president of the Committee. His activities outside the Committee were well known, and the exposure made him a target of an angry mob during the race riot of 1842. Purvis was able to hold off the mob long enough to escape without harm.
Female Vigilant Association
In July 1838, women formed the Female Vigilant Association to raise funds for the men’s Association. The women held West Indian Emancipation Day celebrations on August 1 and fairs in December to raise money. Harriet was a leader of the Female Vigilant Society, which provided monies for transportation and clothing to the travelers.
Free Produce Movement
Harriet Forten Purvis became involved in the Free Produce Society. Its members purchased local produce and boycotted produce grown and harvested by slaves. She was often a delegate to the Free Produce Conventions and was a member of the Colored Free Produce Association. She continued this practice even after some questioned its effectiveness.
Image: Robert Purvis
A daguerreotype made in the 1840s
After he founded the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee in 1837, Robert Purvis was called the father of the Underground Railroad. He and Harriet began using their home at 9th and Lombard Street in Philadelphia as a station on the Underground Railroad. These were dangerous times in central Philadelphia; the family moved to a farm in the rural community of 1843 or 1844.
The Purvis house in Byberry, called Harmony Hall, was one of the principal stations on the Underground Railroad, with a specially constructed secret room reached by a trap door. The Purvises assisted about 9,000 runaway slaves along their journey to Canada. Slaves were hidden from authorities in their Byberry house through a trap door that was installed in the floor by Robert.
In 1855, William Wells Brown published a biography of Robert Purvis in which he wrote:
There is no colored man in this country to whom the Anti-slavery cause is more indebted than to Mr. Purvis. Endowed with a capacious and reflective mind, he is ever in search after truth; and, consequently, all reforms find in him an able and devoted advocate. Inheriting a large fortune, he has had the means, as well as the will, to do good. Few men in this country, either colored or white, possess the rare accomplishments of Robert Purvis.
After the Thirteenth Amendment had been passed on January 31, 1865, Harriet Forten Purvis continued her efforts to improve the rights of African Americans. The Female Antislavery Society continued to meet and in September 1866 the members discussed the status of the South. Robert and Harriet became involved with the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League and American Equal Rights Association and served on the executive committee. Harriet spoke for the right to vote for women and blacks and against segregation.
Desegregating the Streetcars
Harriet and Robert Purvis worked alongside Octavius Catto, a black man who was a leader of this campaign, to desegregate streetcars in Philadelphia. Many protests were held in order to bring attention to the movement. On May 17, 1865, Catto, sat in a passenger car and refused to leave it. He sat in the car all night and eventually attracted a crowd. The protests continued as the unjust treatment of African Americans by the trolley system became more visible to the public.
In one incident, trolley car conductors forcibly removed African American women and children from the cars. In response, a meeting was held to protest this treatment and to demand more respect and justice for African Americans. A speech given by Catto explained the ways in which African Americans had contributed our country and expressed that they should be given equal rights. In 1867, a state law was passed that provided equal access to public vehicles for all races.
Before 1776, women exercised the right to vote in several American colonies. After 1776, the colonies became states and created new constitutions which prevented women from voting. Harriet Purvis and her sister Margaretta were key organizers of the Fifth National Women’s Rights Convention in Philadelphia in 1854. Harriet’s daughter, Hattie became the first African-American vice president of the organization.
Harriet Purvis joined the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) founded in 1869 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when the women’s rights movement split into two groups over the issue of suffrage for African American men. Other black women who worked for women’s right to vote included Sojourner Truth, Mary Ann Shadd, Nancy Prince, and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper.
In 1873, Robert and Harriet moved to a home in Mount Vernon, Philadelphia with Georgianna and Harriet, who were still at home. The family suffered severely from a series of illnesses. Three of their sons died, one from meningitis and the others from tuberculosis,
Harriet Forten Purvis died June 11, 1875 from tuberculosis at the age of 65, and was buried at the Quaker Fair Hill Burial Ground.
Robert Purvis moved to the Mount Vernon house and married the Quaker poet Tacie Townsend, a white woman from Byberry, circa 1878.