Harriet Forten Purvis was an anti-slavery, women’s rights activist and station master, along with her husband, Robert Purvis, for the Underground Railroad. She was one of eight children of James and Charlotte Forten. The Fortens were a prominent Philadelphia family and many of the family’s members have had a lasting impact on the city.
Harriet, along with mother, Charlotte, and sisters Margaretta and Sarah Louise, joined many of the city’s leading women abolitionists to form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. This radical organization, embracing African-American and white members, contributed significantly to local and national abolitionist efforts from 1833 until the group disbanded in 1870. The group led petition drives in which they collected signatures for anti-slavery petitions sent to the Pennsylvania State Legislature including petitions to prohibit interstate slave trade and to allow jury trials for people apprehended as fugitive slaves. Additionally the PFASS supported a school, run by Sarah Mapps Douglass, for the Free Black population, held public meetings to recruit members and to advance the cause and organized major fundraising efforts for the anti-slavery movement.
Harriet attended the first Women’s Anti-Slavery Convention in New York in 1837 and also the second, held in Philadelphia at the newly build Pennsylvania Hall in 1838, for which she served as a delegate. With funds raised by two thousand people, including those raised by her father and extended family, Pennsylvania Hall was built by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society with the motto “Virtue, Liberty and Independence” to accommodate the needs of a growing community of abolitionist speakers and activists. Pennsylvania Hall was dedicated May 14, 1838 and the Second Annual Women’s Anti-Slavery Convention commenced the next day. On May 17, 1838, the Hall was burned down by a mob who were opposed to the overall project and, apparently, enflamed by the presence of Black and white men and women arriving, departing together.
While the women’s convention did, importantly, include the participation of Black and white delegates, speakers and attendees, newspaper reports also enflamed the mob’s hysteria by reporting various scenes of interaction between Black and white attendees including a description of a “white” man helping a Black woman down from her carriage. Robert Purvis came to believe that he had been misrecognized and that the described scene was of him and his wife, Harriet.
Harriet was no dissuaded by the violence and served as a delegate the following year for which the convention was held in a riding stable for lack of more public accommodation. Harriet also chaired many of the fairs held by the PFASS between 1840-1861 and was a member of the Committee of Arrangements for Public Sale for the PFASS which is the group that organized the annual fairs. These events were a massive undertaking and became a primary fundraising vehicle for the group. The group’s large contributions to the larger Anti-Slavery movement in the city and the nation, created even greater value and power for their members in the various discussions and debates taking place within the community as a whole.
In addition to her work with PFASS, Harriet was a member of the Colored Female Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania which was active in Philadelphia from 1830 to 1856 and she served as a delegate to the convention of the American Free Produce Association in 1839.
Harriet was a partner to her husband in his organization in August 1837 of the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia and in July 1838 she formed the Female Vigilant Association. Both groups were formed to actively resist the institution of slavery and to raise money and support for those people fleeing slavery. This support included food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medical and legal assistance. The Purvis home in Byberry was an important site on the Underground Railroad network.
Through this work as well as through her active participation in the National Women’s Suffrage Association, Harriet Forten Purvis was an important champion of women’s rights and her lived experience testifies to the foundational role African-American women had in shaping feminist political movements and ideologies.