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PHOTO ESSAY

The Underground Railroad

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Robert Purvis

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library

The wealthy heir of a British cotton broker and a mixed-race mother of North African and German Jewish descent, Robert Purvis (1810–1898) was a fascinating product of nineteenth-century America. Purvis, who was light in skin tone, might have easily lived as a wealthy upper-class Philadelphian. However, beginning in the 1830s he founded and financed various abolitionist groups such as the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, dedicating his professional and personal life to advancing black interests. In 1839 Purvis served as president of the Vigilant Committee, which, according to an 1883 account coedited by him, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania, represented the "first organized society of the Underground Railroad." Purvis became increasingly radicalized, and after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 openly supported armed resistance to the law. In addition, he reportedly hid escaping slaves on his farm, located just outside of Philadelphia. After the Civil War, Purvis continued his involvement in politics and philanthropy until his death in 1898.

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