Robert Purvis was a wealthy abolitionist. He grew up in Philadelphia and inherited a large fortune from his father, a white South Carolina cotton broker, at the age of 16. His mother was a free woman of color, of Moroccan and Jewish descent. Purvis graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts, and later returned to live among the Black elite in Philadelphia.
In 1833, he helped establish the Library Company of Colored People, which was modeled after the Library Company of Philadelphia. During the same year, Purvis also co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society and gave an enormous amount of his time to the organization. From 1845 – 1850, he served as president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. During his tenure as president, he traveled to England to gain support for the movement.
His residence, a station on the Underground Railroad, was often called the Saints’ Rest. One of the rooms had a secret trap door that concealed a hidden room in which slaves or other fugitives could seek refuge. Purvis estimated that from 1831 until 1861, he helped one slave achieve freedom every day, aiding a total of more than 9,000 slaves.
Purvis married Harriet Davy Forten, a woman of color and the daughter of a wealthy sailmaker with whom Purvis had eight children. She was also active in the anti-slavery movement, and was active in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. After Purvis’ first wife died, he married a woman of European descent, Tacy Townsend. There was a lot of backlash from both the white community and the African American community, who could not get past the color line.