(A Purpose-Built Abolition Debate Hall)
Byberry Hall was constructed in 1846 by Robert Purvis (1810 – 1898), an African American, who was a leading abolitionist and promoter of women’s rights. He considered himself simply an advocate of human rights, black, white, male or female.
Robert Purvis came to Philadelphia in 1819 as a child. Philadelphia was intended to be a temporary home; his parents, a wealthy couple, were planning in moving the family to England. His mother was biracial, and his maternal grandmother had been captured in Morocco and sold into slavery in the US.
His parents abhorred slavery and the family was deeply involved in the abolition movement. Robert and his two brothers attended the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society's Clarkson School for grammar school. The family were frequent guests at the home of abolitionist, James Forten.
When Robert was sixteen, his father died leaving the family a great deal of wealth. Robert went to New England for boarding school and then on to college. When he returned to Philadelphia after graduating from Amherst College, he used his substantial inheritance to start a business buying and selling real estate.
He married Harriet Forten, shortly after his return in 1832.
They bought a house in the center of Philadelphia and eventually had eight children and a governess to manage them.
Robert and Harriet Purvis were leading abolitionists during the nineteenth century. Harriet was a founder Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Colored Free Produce Association, an organization the boycotted good produced by enslaved people. Additionally, she was a member of the Anti-Slavery Women, Free Produce Society, Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League and American Equal Rights Association, and the National Woman Suffrage Association.
Robert served as an officer of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. In 1837, he founded the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia (Harriet founded the Female Vigilant Association), and its secret branch, Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia. While the Vigilant Association promoted abolitionist ideals and raised money for the cause, the Committee directly assisted escaped slaves reach freedom, it is considered the start of the underground railroad.
Racial tensions in Philadelphia exploded into race riots in the late 1830’s. The Purvis’s were regular targets of these. One of the most famous riots, the burning of Pennsylvania Hall, was blamed by the pro-slavery crowd on the fact that a mixed race couple had attending the lecture. The couple was actually the Purvis’s; Robert was very light-skinned and Harriet was not. At least twice the mobs went directly to the Purvis residence, threatening to burn it down with occupants inside. After this happened two nights in a role in 1842, Robert took his family and moved to the country for safety.
Destruction by Fire of Pennsylvania Hall, May 17, 1838
Illustration by J. C. Wild, Courtesy Library of Congress (2014645336)
The Purvis’s moved to Byberry Township. Their farm, called Harmony Hall, bordered the Meeting House Complex both to the north and to the south. This move was by no means the end of their activities. The Purvis’s regularly travelled 14 miles to Philadelphia to attend abolitionist meetings and anti-slavery fairs but more notably, Harmony Hall became a hub of abolitionist activity.
It is thought as many as one slave a day was harbored at Harmony Hall. Between this and their previous house in the city, total people saved is estimated to approximately 9,000 by the Purvises.
Shortly after their arrival, in 1846, they purchased the lot bordering the Meeting House property to the east and constructed Byberry Hall.
Byberry Hall was also intended as a public meeting space. Until this point abolitionist lectures were occasionally held in the Meeting House, including in 1844 when the Friends somewhat reluctantly, let Fredrick Douglass deliver a lecture there. But Friends felt that such a contentious subject was not appropriate in the same space as Meeting for Worship.
Byberry Hall provided a place to have opened discussions about race as well as education and social issues. It was intended from the start as a space to speak freely in community meetings, educational lectures and debates.
Purvis sold the Hall to the Trustees of Byberry Hall, an organization he founded with others. The Trustees remained active well into the 20th century and was intwined with the Meeting. He remained an active member of the Trustees throughout his life in Byberry. The Hall was also used for meetings of the Byberry Philosophical Society, which Purvis was a member, and the Byberry Literary Society which started in 1858.
Township elections were moved from the Schoolhouse to the Hall shortly after its construction.
Byberry Hall was a rural center for the Purvises to host abolitionist’s from throughout the northeast including amongst others, William Lloyd Garrison, James and Lucretia Mott, and Fredrick Douglas. It is likely that William Still also spoke here as he worked closely with Purvis for the Vigilance Committee.
The Purvises were also vocal believers in women’s rights. They hosted Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at their home.
Although the Purvis’s were not members of the Byberry Meeting, they appear to have been on good terms with the Members not just through their connection with Byberry Hall. They were known to attend Meeting when Lucretia Mott spoke there. Their children went to Byberry School which was the only integrated school in the area until the 1850’s. Robert Purvis was a member of the Byberry Philosophical Society which, although not a Quaker organization, was dominated by members of the Meeting. He donated land to the Meeting to extend the new burial ground in which two of his sons are buried there.
In 1874 Robert was hired to oversee the closure of the Freedman’s Savings Bank, a post that required him to spend a great deal of time in Washington DC. Harriet and her daughter moved from Byberry to a row house downtown, in what is now called the Spring Garden neighborhood. Harriet died shortly afterward.