Abolitionist with Jewish Ties Robert Purvis Remembered

Robert Purvis
Robert Purvis was a prominent abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights. (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.)

April 15 marks the 122nd anniversary of the death of Robert Purvis, an abolitionist who served as president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, founded the Library Company for Colored People and sheltered escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.

“He was President of the ‘Underground Railroad’ and throughout that long period of peril his house was a well-known station where his horses and carriages and his personal attendance were ever at the service of travelers on that road,” The New York Times wrote upon his death in 1898.

According to his biographer, Margaret Hope Bacon, Purvis was three-quarters European by ancestry, but he identified strongly with the black community and did not attempt to pass as white. His father, William Purvis, was a British merchant, and his mother, Harriet Judah, was a free woman of color.

Harriet Judah was the daughter of Dido Badaraka and the Charleston, South Carolina, Jewish flour merchant Baron Judah. Baron was the third child of Hillel Judah, who was from Germany, and his wife Abigail Seixas Judah, who was Sephardic.

The Judahs moved to Charleston sometime between 1766 and 1783 and became part of a tiny community of 188 Jews, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census of 1790. The members of this community were mainly Sephardic merchants.

Jews in the Southern colonies experienced some discrimination — they could vote and be citizens but not hold office — which was mild compared with the anti-Semitism they faced in the European countries they left behind. Many of them, including the Judahs, owned slaves.

“A friend of the Judah family, visiting Charleston from New York, writing to his sister in 1783, described Baron Judah, who would have been about twenty, as ‘A fine manly young fellow.’ It must have been about this time that Baron became involved with Dido,” Bacon wrote in “But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis.”

Purvis told journalists and biographers that his grandparents were married in a Methodist church, but this information is almost impossible to verify. His grandmother had been kidnapped by slave traders in Morocco and, while she may have been living as a free woman or indentured servant by the time she met Judah, Bacon argued that interracial marriage was extremely rare, especially in the Southern states.

Judah moved to Richmond after his relationship with Badaraka ended. He married a Jewish woman and had at least four children. His grandson Robert was born in Charleston in 1810 and spend most of his life in Philadelphia.

According to the National Park Service, Purvis married Harriet Forten, the daughter of the prominent black Philadelphia businessman James Forten, in 1831. In 1833, he helped abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison establish the American Anti-Slavery Society of Philadelphia. He helped Frederick Douglass finance a home and traveled to Britain to garner support for the abolitionist cause.

Purvis dedicated himself to other causes, including voting rights, women’s rights, Native American rights, Irish Home Rule and prison reform. He served as the first vice president of the Women’s Suffrage Society and campaigned to repeal 1838 Pennsylvania state laws that revoked the voting rights of free property-owning African American men.

He was a staunch opponent of colonization. This proposal, popular among politicians at the time, involved sending black people to Africa in response to racial tensions in the United States.

“In the matter of rights there is but one race, and that is the human race. God has made one blood of all nations to dwell on the face of the Earth. … Sir this is our country as well as yours, and we will not leave it,” he wrote in a public letter in 1838 opposing the policy.

He was, based on historical record, handsome.

“At the time of his death at age eighty-eight, several papers commented on his continuing good looks. He was six feet tall and graceful, with an erect carriage, dark wavy hair and sideburns, dark eyes, fine brows, high cheek bones, and a well-formed mouth and chin,” Bacon wrote.

Purvis’ house at 1601 Mount Vernon St. was almost destroyed by neglect before the Spring Garden Community Development Corp. entered a legal battle to preserve the historic building.

“We started in January 2018 trying to seek conservatorship legally, and we finally got the conservatorship in November of 2018,” said Barbara Wolf, official conservator and board member of the development corporation.

Wolf and her fellow board members had to provide proof that the dwelling was blighted, and proceedings were delayed when the owners filed for bankruptcy. The board was ultimately able to make the repairs necessary to save the house from collapse in September.

Wolf was happy with the results.

“(Purvis) is just such an incredible historic character as an abolitionist,” she said.

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