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But One Race

The Life of Robert Purvis

Margaret Hope Bacon

Publication Year: 2007

Born in South Carolina to a wealthy white father and mixed race mother, Robert Purvis (1810–1898) was one of the nineteenth century’s leading black abolitionists and orators. In this first biography of Purvis, Margaret Hope Bacon uses his eloquent and often fierce speeches to provide a glimpse into the life of a passionate and distinguished man, intimately involved with a wide range of major reform movements, including abolition, civil rights, Underground Railroad activism, women’s rights, Irish Home Rule, Native American rights, and prison reform. Citing his role in developing the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee, an all black organization that helped escaped slaves secure passage to the North, the New York Times described Purvis at the time of his death as the president of the Underground Railroad. Voicing his opposition to a decision by the state of Pennsylvania to disenfranchise black voters in 1838, Purvis declared “there is but one race, the human race.” But One Race is the dramatic story of one of the most important figures of his time.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: Excelsior Editions

But ONE Race

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

The origins of this book date back to 1997 when I published an article on Robert Purvis in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, entitled “The Double Curse of Sex and Race: Robert Purvis and HumanRights.” I found the research for this essay difficult because of the absence of family correspondence, on which I had relied in all my previous biographies...

Ancestral Chart of the Purvis Family

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pp. xiii

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pp. 1-5

Throughout the nineteenth century the struggle to end slavery, to assist escaping slaves to make their way to safety, and to achieve full rights for black citizens, was conducted by a number of free blacks in the Northern states, in concert with white liberals. Not until Benjamin Quarles published his pioneer study, Black Abolitionists, in 1969 was attention shifted...

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1. Of Southern Birth

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pp. 7-15

Robert Purvis, destined to become a major figure in the abolition of slavery, was born in Charleston, South Carolina—a state second only to Virginiain its slave population—on August 4, 1810. The Neck, an unincorporated section of Charleston, north of what was known as Boundary Street, was then a place of lawlessness; it was home to many free blacks, and the black...

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2. The City of Brotherly Love

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pp. 17-27

Philadelphia, the city to which William Purvis moved his family in 1819, was a rapidly growing metropolis with a large free black population. From 1810 to 1820, the population of Philadelphia grew from ninety-two thousand to one hundred thirteen thousand while the black community increased from nine thousand five hundred to twelve thousand, or a little...

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3. Present at the Beginning

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pp. 29-42

A more profound influence on the young Robert Purvis than that of Benjamin Lundy was James Forten (1766–1842), the wealthy black sail maker who lived on Lombard Street. James was the son of Thomas Forten, a journeyman sailmaker and Margaret, who may have been a former slave. Young Forten attended the Free African School, founded by Anthony Benezet and conducted by Quakers at Willings Alley. Thomas...

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4. World Traveler

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pp. 43-57

During his trip to England in 1833, William Lloyd Garrison told some of the English abolitionists about the free black leaders in the American movement, among them, the rising young Robert Purvis. Sometime in the early months of 1834, he suggested to Robert that he visit Great Britain to follow up on Garrison’s leads, continue to raise money for the...

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5. “ We are Not Intruders Here”

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pp. 59-73

Thomas Shipley had been one of several members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society with whom the Philadelphia black community had worked harmoniously on antislavery issues, and such practical matters as the rescue of kidnapped blacks. But the organization of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, with its call for immediate abolition, had ...

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6. To Aid the Fleeing Slave

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pp. 75-87

The climate of violence which had settled over Philadelphia in the1830s made it more difficult to aid the fugitive slaves who, from time to time, came over the Maryland border. Slave catchers felt freer to move about, and to bring questionable cases before magistrates, now that public opinion appeared to be on their side. The problem of protecting runaways from slave catchers was a ...

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7. A Time of Loss

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pp. 89-100

Throughout these tumultuous early years Robert Purvis had the support and friendship of his father-in-law, James Forten, to strengthen his resolve. He loved and admired the civic-minded and patriotic sailmaker. Forten inturn regarded him as a son, in many ways as close as his own sons.Tragedy struck the Forten family in 1840. In May, ...

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8. Gentleman Farmer

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pp. 101-116

Despite the rashness that his colleagues detected in his speeches, Robert Purvis was always deliberate in matters pertaining to property.Though he and Harriet undoubtedly debated the decision to leave the city, and looked at various country and suburban communities, it was not until a year after the riots of 1842 that they made a move. In September...

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9. “This Wicked Law”

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pp. 117-130

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in September 1850 came as a blow to all abolitionists, but especially those of color, who believed that their countrymen would eventually see that justice and fairness demanded an end to slavery. Instead, the nation as a whole seemed committed to safeguarding the rights of the slave owners. The fact that...

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10. “Are We Not Men?” [Includes Image Plates]

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pp. 131-144

Perhaps in part to fill the empty place in her heart, Harriet Purvis invited her niece, Charlotte Forten, to live with them at Harmony Hall during the school year of 1858–1859. Charlotte, a school teacher, was to tutor the younger children, Georgianna and Granville, and to keep Hattie company. Charlotte was the daughter or Robert Bridges Forten and his first...

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11. “A Proud Day for the Colored Man”

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pp. 145-159

The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 lifted Purvis’s sagging spirits. Although he knew it was the result of a political compromise and only applied to freed slaves in the rebel states, it established the principle of equality. At a meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society on January 10, he said he regarded the great fact of emancipation as a ...

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12. “ Equality of Rights for All”

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pp. 161-173

During the Civil War, the children of Robert and Harriet Purvis had come of age. Charles, the oldest remaining son, enrolled in the preparatory course at Oberlin College in 1860, at age eighteen; he graduated in1863, and in 1865 graduated from Wooster Medical College (later, Western Reserve Medical School). In the summer of 1864, he worked as a military ...

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13. The Freedmen’s Savings Bank

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pp. 175-189

The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, but blacks were quickly finding that it seemed to do little to overcome the effects of discrimination. Robert Purvis turned his remarkable energies to finding new ways to struggle for equality for blacks in the nation at large, and in his hometown, the City of Brotherly Love. He began to take a lively interest in city politics, in...

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14. “ We are To the Manner Born”

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pp. 191-206

At the national convention of the Republican Party, held on June 2,1880, there was wrangling between two groups, the “Stalwarts,” who wanted to elect General Ulysses S. Grant, and the “Half Breeds,” who nominated James A. Garfield. A compromise was reached after Chester A. Arthur, a Stalwart, was made the vice presidential nominee. In the ...

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15. “His Magnificent Record”

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pp. 207-212

Robert Purvis had remained in relatively good health into his eighties. Though suffering occasionally from lumbago, rheumatic pains in the lower back, he was still erect and handsome. A newspaper reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer had stated in 1890 that he had just celebrated his seventieth birthday, when in fact it had been his eightieth. Although he had several times been threatened ...


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pp. 213-253


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pp. 255-266


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pp. 267-279

E-ISBN-13: 9780791480427
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791470077
Print-ISBN-10: 0791470075

Page Count: 293
Illustrations: 12 b/w photographs, 1 table
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Excelsior Editions

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Philadelphia (Pa.) -- Biography.
  • African Americans -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia -- Biography.
  • Purvis, Robert, 1810-1898.
  • African American abolitionists -- Biography.
  • Abolitionists -- United States -- Biography.
  • African American civil rights workers -- Biography.
  • Antislavery movements -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
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