Harriet Forten Purvis (1810-1875)

Harriet Forten, the daughter of prominent African American entrepreneur James Forten, was born in Philadelphia in 1810. Like most members of the Forten family, Harriet was a prominent abolitionist and a member of the Female Vigilant Society; along with her mother Charlotte Vandine Forten, she was also a founding member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society established in 1833, the country's first interracial organization of women's abolitionists.

Additionally, Harriet publicly spoke out against segregation and was a proponent for black voting rights; and often lectured in support of women's suffrage. Harriet Forten married Robert Purvis, a wealthy and prominent figure in Philadelphia’s free “colored” community who, because of his contribution, and helping to personally free thousands of “fugitive slaves,” has been called “The President of the Underground Railroad.”

Robert Purvis’s commitment to fighting for African American’s right’s during the 19th century cannot be overstated. “He was a founding member of William Lloyd Garrison's American Antislavery Society in Philadelphia, and established the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, encouraging literacy and learning. He was a proponent and practitioner of what was called the "free produce" movement, insisting that no food be served in his home if slaves had been involved in its cultivation.”

Further, when “Pennsylvania proposed barring out-of-state free blacks from settling in the state, Purvis chaired the committee that assembled Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement, and spoke widely on African-Americans' accomplishments and contributions to the state's economic and cultural strength. Purvis's Appeal was for decades among the most widely-read and influential abolitionist documents. After his home was repeatedly beset by angry white mobs, Purvis moved from Philadelphia to a quieter adjacent town, Byberry (ironically now part of Philadelphia). In 1853 the town of Byberry banned black children from school, but when Purvis -- one of the town's richest citizens -- announced that he would respond by refusing to pay his taxes, the town's exclusionary edict was almost immediately reversed. After the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision, he wrote that he owed no allegiance to a nation that held that blacks had "no rights a white man was bound to respect."

Together, Harriet Forten Purvis and her husband Robert spent most of their lives fighting for the rights of African Americans, and this dynamic couple personally made the lives of African Americans better everywhere.
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