Harriet Davy Forten Purvis

Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biographical Sketch of Harriet Forten Purvis, 1810-1875

By Spencer Wiegand, Undergraduate student, Hampton University



Harriet Forten was born on February 1, 1810, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a major center of free Black life in the early nineteenth century. Forten was the second of eight children born to James and Charlotte Forten and grew up in affluence buoyed by James Forten's successful sail-making business. Forten received her education from private tutors that specialized in foreign language and music. However, James and Charlotte Forten did not allow their children to be ignorant of the harsh realities of Black life, and taught their children about abolition at a very young age.

On September 13, 1831, Harriet Forten married Robert Purvis, the son of a wealthy English immigrant and a free woman of color. According to the racial politics of the day, Robert Purvis was most certainly Black, but audiences often read his light complexion as white; this led to assumptions and intolerance of miscegenation that turned violent. At one women's anti-slavery convention in Philadelphia, people protested and formed a mob that burned down the convention site. Although these actions did not deter the couple's anti-slavery mission, they did hurt Harriet Forten Purvis deeply.

The Purvises worked together to help spread the word as they traveled around the country to speak against slavery. Their affluence allowed them to travel, and, ultimately, return to the respite of their estate, Saint's Rest.

Harriet Forten Purvis did a lot on her own when it came to fighting for women's rights. She was a long-time member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and a prominent public speaker. She also had a love for literature that propelled her to create the Gilbert Lyceum, dedicated to discussing literature and cultural issues. Her home also was used in the Underground Railroad to hide runaway slaves. Some of the slaves she sheltered were Madison Washington, Joseph Cinque, and Daniel Webster. Purvis also became involved in a movement that boycotted produce grown by slaves; it was known as the Free Produce Society.

Harriet Forten Purvis was also a strong supporter of woman suffrage, having helped to organize the Fifth National Woman's Rights Convention in 1854. After the Civil War she joined the interracial Philadelphia Suffrage Association, the American Equal Rights Association, and the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Harriet Forten Purvis had eight children of her own and took in her niece, Charlotte Forten, after the death of Charlotte's mother. Tragically, Harriet Forten Purvis lost three children to tuberculosis, the very disease that took her life on June 11, 1875. Robert Purvis survived his wife

by more than 20 years. Both Harriet and Robert Purvis were buried at the Fair Hill Burial Ground, a historic Quaker burial site in Philadelphia.

Sources: Maggie MacLean, "History of American Women: Harriet Forten Purvis," accessed online at http://www.womenhistoryblog.com; Julie Winch, "Harriet Davy Forten Purvis," in The Elite of Our People: Joseph Willson's Sketches of Black Upper-Class Life in Antebellum Philadelphia (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2000); Janice Sumler-Lewis, "The Forten-Purvis Women of Philadelphia and the American Anti-Slavery Crusade," Journal of Negro History 66:4 (Winter 1981-1982) 281-88; Margaret Orthodox, "Harriet Davy Forten Purvis," accessed online in http://findagrave.com.

For additional biographical sketches, see Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Forten_Purvis and also the sketch on the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial website at https://suffragistmemorial.org/harriet-forten-purvis-1810-1875/

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