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. ••