Robert Purvis was born in 1810 Charleston, South Carolina, to William Purvis, a white English immigrant, and to Harriet Judah, a free woman of color. He moved to Philadelphia with his father and his brothers William and Joseph in 1819, Robert attended the Pennsylvania Abolition Society’s Clarkson Hall school. He enrolled at Amherst College, returning to Philadelphia after graduating.
Purvis was Joseph Cassey’s business partner, helping him when he bought and sold real estate. Robert Purvis also had very strong ties with the Forten family, and in 1831, he married James Forten’s daughter Harriet. Together, they were very involved in efforts to aid fugitive slaves. He helped to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, and from 1845-1850, served as president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. In 1837, Purvis formed the Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia to help spread the anti-slavery message and to aid runaway slaves.
His activism also extended to print. In 1838, he wrote Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disenfranchisement (Philadelphia, 1838) a pamphlet which challenged Pennsylvania’s adoption of a state constitutional amendment that revoked the voting rights of free African Americans. In addition, he gave financial assistance to William Lloyd Garrison for his work with The Liberator. During the Civil War, Purvis helped enlist African American troops. He died in 1898 in Philadelphia.