Harriet "Hattie" Purvis

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of HARRIET "HATTIE" PURVIS, 1839-1904

By Nancy Santucci Cohen, M.B.A., Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

Philadelphia Abolitionist, Suffragist, and Social Reformer

Harriet "Hattie" Purvis was a member of a distinguished black Philadelphia family who shaped the political debate around abolition, suffrage, and women's rights. It is important to understand that Hattie's enthusiastic and personal commitment to social reform resulted from her exposure to her parents' values and beliefs.

Harriet Davy Forten Purvis, (1810-1875) mother of Hattie and seven other children, was the daughter of famed James Forten, (1766-1842). Harriet was a suffragist, writer, a founder of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Philadelphia Suffrage Association.

Robert Purvis (1810-1898), Hattie's father, was mixed race and a successful real estate investor, gentleman farmer, abolitionist, underground railroad organizer, founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and spokesman for full equality for all.

In 1842, the Purvis home on Lombard Street in Philadelphia became a target of white mobs, forcing the family to relocate to a farm twelve miles north in rural Byberry. Purvis built a hidden room in the basement and their house became an Underground Rail Road station. At their Byberry home, the Purvis family served as gracious hosts to Susan B. Anthony, James and Lucretia Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, and other influential family friends who discussed abolition and social causes.

The ongoing reform activities in her home greatly affected Hattie. She identified with her parents and followed their exasmple; therefore, at an early age she committed to anti-slavery and woman's rights causes. As Susan B. Anthony confirmed in her diary on 28 May 1876:

"Harriet 'Hattie' and Georgiana Purvis, who lived in their father's house outside Philadelphia, were heirs to their parents' interest in equal rights for women and African Americans."

Hattie attended the Byberry Friends School and later studied at the elite, co-ed and biracial Friends Eagleswood School in New Jersey where she became close friends with Ellen Wright (daughter of Martha Coffin Wright and wife of William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., married in 1864).

Hattie was sensitive to the racial discrimination she and her family faced daily. In a letter dated 16 January 1856, Hattie, age 17, addressed her friend Ellen Wright: "My Lovely Ellen, . . . I have been teaching my little brothers and sister this winter, for there is no school here for them to go, except a Public School, and there they are made, to sit by their selves, because their faces are not as white as the rest of the scholars. Oh! Ellie how it makes my blood boil when I think of it."

Educator and activist Charlotte Forten, Hattie's cousin, provides insight into the lively and witty side of Hattie in her own personal journal. On 16 June 1857, Charlotte entered: "The eve was beautiful. Had a glorious sunset. Hattie, Charles, Georgie and I went on a strawberry expedition . . . We had an abundance of fun during our walk. Hattie, who is a capital mimic, amused me exceedingly. Laughed till we were nearly exhausted."

Along with Harriot Stanton, Anna Mott and Charlotte Forten, Hattie represented the second generation of American women suffragists who emerged after the Civil War. Many of these leaders, including Hattie, got their start in the abolitionist movement. Hattie Purvis possessed a great need to accomplish things and during her lifetime she served numerous organizations in her commitment to reform.

  • In February 1866 Hattie officially joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, founded by her relatives. Hattie served on the Anti-Slavery Fair Committee, organizing and selling donated goods and raising thousands of dollars for the abolitionist cause.
  • In May 1866 Hattie attended the National Woman's Rights Convention, where the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was founded by Susan B. Anthony. She became a hard working member of the AERA and served alternately as recording and corresponding secretary for the organization until 1869, the last year the AERA met.
  • In the early 1880's, Hattie joined The Pennsylvania Women Suffrage Association, and in 1884 she was elected to its Executive Committee.
  • From 1883-1900, Hattie served as a Delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association and she was the first African American Vice President of the organization.
  • (circa 1885) Hattie served as Superintendent of Temperance Work among Colored People for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). This branch of the WCTU encouraged African American women to rally for the Temperance cause, i.e., to eliminate the use of alcohol and make the home safe for women.
  • In June 1895 Hattie addressed the State Board of Pardons on behalf of a poor black woman, Annie Cutler, who had been denied a fair trial by jury but was nevertheless convicted of murder in the first degree. Hattie petitioned to have Cutler's death sentence commuted on the basis that Cutler had been denied a fair trial by jury.
  • In 1899 Hattie and her niece Alice crossed the Atlantic with Susan B. Anthony to attend a meeting of the International Council of Women (ICW) in London. Purvis spent much of her adult life working with Susan B Anthony in the woman's movement.

Hattie Purvis never married, and remained the resident daughter in her parents' home. Hattie was by her father's side when he died in 1898 and she was bequeathed significant income and the house at 1522 Wallace Street in Philadelphia.

Throughout her life, Hattie, a shrewd businesswoman, maintained the financial means to attend Women's Rights Conventions, continue her fight for social reform, and to visit friends until she succumbed to meningitis at age 65 on 4 April 1904 while in Massachusetts. Hattie's cremains were returned to Philadelphia and were buried in the Purvis family plot in the Historic Friends' Fair Hill Burial Ground in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Hattie Purvis remained committed to her social causes her entire life. She strongly believed, "To do good is my religion."


Bacon, Margaret Hope. "The Motts and the Purvises: A Study in Interracial Friendship." Quaker History, vol. 92, no. 2, 2003, pp. 1-18., doi:10.1353/qkh.2003.0003.

Feliz, Elyce. Excerpts: "Journal of Charlotte Forten." Civil War Blogspot. August 4, 2014. http://civilwaref.blogspot.com/2014/08/robert-purvis-born-august-4-1810.html

Gordon, Ann D., editor. "From The Diary of SBA [24-28 May 1876]." The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Vol. III. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003. pp. 226-229.

Lamphier, Peg A., and Roseanne Welch. Women in American History: a Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection. ABC-CLIO, an Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2017, p. 58.

Letter from Hattie Purvis to Ellen Wright, January 16, 1856. Sophia Smith Collection, Online Exhibits--Across the Generations: Exploring U.S. History Through Family Papers--Garrison Selected Documents and Images https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/atg/garrisonselected.html

McCarthy, Jack. "Abolitionist's Dreamland." Hidden City Philadelphia. September 30, 2011. https://hiddencityphila.org/2011/09/abolitionists-dreamland-2/

Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Minutes of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. 23 February 1866 to 13 September 1868. The Minutes are Housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Photograph of Harriet "Hattie" Purvis, Undated. Sophia Smith Collection, Online Exhibits - Across the Generations: Exploring U.S. History Through Family Papers-Garrison Selected Documents and Images https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/ssc/atg/garrisonselected.html

Purvis, Harriet "Hattie" Purvis. Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/144122763/harriet-purvis

"Robert Purvis Rides to the Rescue in 1800's Bucks County," Bucks County Courier Times [Bensalem, PA], February 15, 2016. http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com/79285c8a-ce8f-11e5-b6e3-4feffd6357a4.html

Sumler-Lewis, Janice. "The Forten-Purvis Women of Philadelphia and the American Anti-Slavery Crusade." The Journal of Afro American History, vol. 66, no. 4, Winter 1981-1982. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.2307/2717236?journalCode=jnh

"Sympathy for Annie Cutler, Commutation of Sentence to be Asked of the Board of Pardons," Philadelphia Times [Philadelphia, PA], 3 June 1895, p. 6. https://www.bing.com/search?q=%E2%80%9Csympathy+for+annie+cutler%2C+c ommutation+of+sentence+to+be+asked+of+the+board+of+pardons%2C%E2%80 %9D+philadelphia+times+%5Bphiladelphia%2C+pa%5D%2C+3+june+1895%2C+p.+6.&form=EDGEAR&qs=PF&cvid=e333889012134776852f89be6605bd8b&cc=US&setlang=en-US&PC=HCTS

Trotter, Joe, and Eric Ledell Smith, editors. African Americans in Pennsylvania; Shifting Historical Perspectives. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997, p. 176.

Winch, Julie. A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 322-359.

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