PURVIS, Robert, president of the “Underground Railway,” was born in Charleston, S. C, Aug. 4, 1810. His father was an Englishman and his mother a native of Charleston, though her mother, Dido Badaracka, was a Moor, born in Morocco about 1754. When Dido was twelve years old she and an Arab girl having been decoyed by a native to see a captured deer were seized, put on the hacks of camels and carried over the country to a slave mart. From this place they were shipped with a cargo of kidnapped Africans to Charleston. Being a comely girl, bright and interesting, she was purchased by a wealthy maiden lady at whose death she was emancipated and granted an annuity of $60. William Purvis, father of Robert, prospered as a cotton-broker in Charleston, from which business he retired in 1819 with a competency. He was an abolitionist even at that early day. The following year he sent his wife and their three sons to Philadelphia with the design of going thence to England to reside permanently. The execution of this plan was prevented by his untimely death. But this did not occur until he had established a school for colored children in Philadelphia and paid the teacher himself for one year. Robert obtained a liberal education. When twenty years of age he became deeply interested in the slavery question through meeting Benjamin Lundy, founder of the antislavery movement in America. He learned to hate slavery as intensely as he loved liberty. In 1831 he read the first copies of the “Liberator,” founded by William Lloyd Garrison, and from that time to the emancipation proclamation no American labored for those in bondage with more self-sacrificing devotion. Mr. Purvis was one of the sixty persons who met in Philadelphia Dec. 4, 1833, and founded the “American Anti-Slavery Society,” which accepted without reservation a declaration of principles formulated by Garrison, viz.: slavery under all circumstances a sin; emancipation a fundamental right and duty; colonization a delusion; church apologies for slavery in the Bible evidence of guilt; statesmanship that sought to suppress agitation a fraud; liberty and slavery incompatible under one government. This society was the nucleus of an intense and powerful moral agitation, the uncompromising spirit and indomitable course of its members making the abolition of slavery feasible and necessary. State societies were formed and Mr. Purvis was president of the Pennsylvania society for many years. When the “Underground Railroad,” an organization to assist fugitive slaves to their liberty, came into existence in Pennsylvania, in 1838, he was made its president and is now (1892) the only surviving member. His most efficient helpers were two market women in Baltimore — one white and the other colored — who obtained genuine passports which they gave to slaves who wished to escape. These passports were returned to them and used again by other fugitives. A son of a slaveholder in Newbern, N. C, engaged in the lumber trade, sent many fugitives to Philadelphia. The homes of Thomas Garrett and Samuel D. Burris, of Delaware, were also important stations from which many were aided in their flight north of Mason and Dixon's line. Many of the fugitives reported at Mr. Purvis' home in Philadelphia where he had a compartment constructed which could only be entered through a trap door underneath one of the rooms. This was deemed perfectly safe should any search be made by authorized officials. In the division among the abolitionists in 1840 he stood with Garrison in favor of recognizing the equal rights of women as members of the anti-slavery societies, and in stern opposition to the organization of abolitionists into a political party. His fidelity to the cause he avowed endeared him to all his associates, as he never surrendered a principle or consented to a compromise. In 1861, when it became necessary to adopt heroic measures, he labored to induce the government to place the civil war openly and avowedly on an anti-slavery basis and to bend every effort to the establishment of a new Union from which slavery should be forever excluded. The poet Whittier and Robert Purvis were the survivors of the sixty members who formed the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. In an article published in the “Atlantic Monthly” Mr. Whittier says, “When Robert Purvis rose to speak in the convention, his appearance at once attracted my attention. I think I never have seen a finer face and figure, and his manner, words and bearing were in keeping.” At the semi-centennial anniversary of the society held in Philadelphia, in 1883, Mr. Purvis presided.
SOURCE: James T. White & Co., Publisher, The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume 1, p. 413