Northeast Times

Marking history

  • Byberry Hall, located at Byberry and Thornton roads, will have a state historical marker unveiled this Saturday. The building was built in 1846-1847 by noted abolitionist Robert Purvis and others to serve as a community meeting place for anti-slavery activists to gather.

  • Byberry Hall was built Robert Purvis in 1846 for anti-slavery meetings. It stands today east of the Quaker Meeting House.

  • Robert Purvis

This Sat­urday at 11 a.m., a state his­tor­ic­al mark­er will be un­veiled hon­or­ing a mod­est but very im­port­ant North­east Phil­adelphia build­ing and the man primar­ily re­spons­ible for hav­ing it built.

By­berry Hall, situ­ated on the grounds of By­berry Friends Meet­ing at By­berry and Thornton roads, was built in 1846-1847 by noted ab­ol­i­tion­ist Robert Pur­vis and oth­ers to serve as a com­munity meet­ing place and safe ven­ue for anti-slavery act­iv­ists to gath­er.

Many of the na­tion’s lead­ing ab­ol­i­tion­ists spoke in By­berry Hall, and By­berry be­came a cen­ter for anti-slavery activ­it­ies in the mid-19th cen­tury.

Sat­urday’s mark­er un­veil­ing is be­ing hos­ted by By­berry Friends Meet­ing and will fea­ture present­a­tions by dig­nit­ar­ies and elec­ted of­fi­cials, fol­lowed by a re­cep­tion in By­berry Friends Meet­ing House. The pub­lic is in­vited to at­tend. 

Robert Pur­vis (1810-1898) was an in­ter­na­tion­ally known Afric­an-Amer­ic­an ab­ol­i­tion­ist and civil rights lead­er in 19th-cen­tury Phil­adelphia. He was some­times re­ferred to as the “Pres­id­ent” of the Un­der­ground Rail­road.

Born in 1810 in Char­le­ston, South Car­o­lina, to a white fath­er who was a wealthy cot­ton broker and a moth­er who was a free wo­man of col­or and daugh­ter of a former slave, he moved with his fam­ily to Phil­adelphia in 1819. Wealthy, edu­cated and cha­ris­mat­ic, he rose to prom­in­ence in Phil­adelphia as an ab­ol­i­tion­ist and so­cial act­iv­ist.

In 1838, Pur­vis pub­lished the in­flu­en­tial pamph­let Ap­peal of Forty Thou­sand Cit­izens Threatened with Dis­fran­chise­ment, which urged the re­peal of a new Pennsylvania con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment dis­en­fran­chising free Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. A prom­in­ent speak­er and au­thor, he served as pres­id­ent of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery So­ci­ety from 1845-1850 and chair­man of the Gen­er­al Vi­gil­ance Com­mit­tee for the Un­der­ground Rail­road from 1852-1857.

Liv­ing in down­town Phil­adelphia dur­ing the race ri­ots of the early 1840s, Pur­vis’ ab­ol­i­tion­ist activ­it­ies there put his life in danger, and in 1843 he moved with his fam­ily to By­berry Town­ship, then a largely rur­al com­munity some 12 miles out­side the city.

Pur­vis es­tab­lished him­self as a gen­tle­man farm­er in By­berry, while also con­tinu­ing his Un­der­ground Rail­road activ­it­ies and so­cial act­iv­ism. He used his home in By­berry as a sta­tion on the Un­der­ground Rail­road and by his own es­tim­ate helped more than 9,000 slaves es­cape to the North. His home was dir­ectly across the road from By­berry Friends (Quaker) Meet­ing.

Al­though not a Quaker him­self, Pur­vis sent his chil­dren to By­berry Friends School and was a mem­ber of the By­berry Lib­rary Com­pany and By­berry Philo­soph­ic­al So­ci­ety, both largely Quaker-run or­gan­iz­a­tions. He spoke be­fore the Philo­soph­ic­al So­ci­ety sev­er­al times, in­clud­ing giv­ing a talk in 1856 en­titled “In­tel­lec­tu­al Con­di­tion of the Colored Race.”

In 1847, Pur­vis and two oth­er loc­al men es­tab­lished the Trust­ees of By­berry Hall and built By­berry Hall on a tract of his land that was ad­ja­cent to the By­berry Meet­ing prop­erty. Ac­cord­ing to the 1847 deed by which he con­veyed the prop­erty to the Trust­ees, the Hall was “to be ded­ic­ated to free dis­cus­sion, to be in­de­pend­ent of, and un­trammeled by, any sect or party, to sub­serve the in­terest or caprice of no big­ot, dog­mat­ist, or tyr­ant, but in the fullest and freest sense to give ample scope and a fair field for the ut­ter­ance of free speech.”

While also used as a meet­ing place for loc­al or­gan­iz­a­tions, By­berry Hall be­came well known for host­ing anti-slavery activ­it­ies. Many fam­ous ab­ol­i­tion­ists and so­cial act­iv­ists spoke in the build­ing, in­clud­ing Lu­cre­tia Mott, Wil­li­am Lloyd Gar­ris­on, Susan B. An­thony and Pur­vis him­self.

In an art­icle in the Pennsylvania Free­man news­pa­per, Pur­vis re­por­ted on an Oct. 18, 1850 meet­ing at By­berry Hall at which a de­clar­a­tion was draf­ted re­gard­ing the Fu­git­ive Slave Law that was re­cently en­acted by the U.S. Con­gress.The de­clar­a­tion was signed by 38 people, mostly By­berry-area res­id­ents, in­clud­ing Robert and his wife Har­riet D. Pur­vis.

Pur­vis also fought dis­crim­in­a­tion at By­berry pub­lic schools and worked to in­teg­rate them. He sued the loc­al school dir­ect­ors in 1848 when his sons were dis­crim­in­ated against by teach­ers, and in a high-pro­file in­cid­ent in 1853 he threatened to with­hold his school taxes when his sons were re­fused ad­mit­tance to the reg­u­lar pub­lic school and re­leg­ated to an in­ad­equate loc­al school for blacks. He was ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful in hav­ing his sons ad­mit­ted to the reg­u­lar school.

Pur­vis also act­ively cam­paigned against an ef­fort by loc­al res­id­ents in 1856 to have By­berry se­cede from Phil­adelphia and be­come part of Bucks County. As a gen­tle­man farm­er, he also par­ti­cip­ated in vari­ous farm shows and in loc­al ag­ri­cul­tur­al and civic or­gan­iz­a­tions. 

In 1875, at the age of 65, Pur­vis moved back to down­town Phil­adelphia and by the late 1870s he had sold his vari­ous By­berry prop­er­ties. He died in 1898 at the age of 87. His home in By­berry was de­mol­ished in the mid-20th cen­tury, but By­berry Hall is still stand­ing and is now part of the By­berry Monthly Meet­ing prop­erty and ad­min­istered by the Trust­ees of the By­berry Monthly Meet­ing of Friends.

For the last 40-some years, the Trust­ees have ren­ted it out as a mar­tial arts stu­dio. The new state his­tor­ic­al mark­er will bring much-de­served re­cog­ni­tion to this im­port­ant build­ing in North­east Phil­adelphia his­tory. ••

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