Abolitionist. Robert Purvis was sometimes called the president of the Underground Railroad. An ardent abolitionist, he founded the Vigilant Association in Philadelphia in 1837 to aid fugitive slaves. From 1837 to 1844 this group coordinated all slave rescues in the area. Meetings were often held in Purvis's own home at 9th and Lombard Streets, and sometimes travelers were housed there as well as behind a trap door that led to a secret hiding place. Records say that between June 9 and September 8, 1841, the Association sent 117 refugees on their way.
News that Purvis was sheltering refugees caused mobs to gather about his house on several occasions. In 1842, when the city was rocked by its worst race riot in history, an angry crowd surrounded his house for forty hours.
Purvis was a close friend of famous abolitionists Lucretia and James Mott. He was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, serving as its president for five successive terms. After the Civil War, he worked on reconstruction in Washington for some years, then took an active role in Philadelphia reform politics.
President of the Underground Railroad