The activist operated a network of secret routes and safe houses allowing runaway slaves to travel from the south of the US to the north.
The US Embassy in Morocco has paid tribute to Robert Purvis, an American man of Moroccan descent who dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery.
“He helped over 9,000 American slaves to freedom, becoming a true hero and source of pride for both Morocco and the United States,” the embassy wrote.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1810, Robert Purvis was the grandchild of a woman known as Dido Badaracka. She was captured in Morocco at the age of 12 and transported to the US to serve as a slave.
According to American historian Margaret Hope Bacon, Purvis described his Moroccan grandmother as a “full-blooded Moor of magnificent features and great beauty. She had crisp hair and a stately manner.”
During her childhood, Dido Badaracka worked for a white woman who treated her kindly, educated her, and allowed her to live separately.
Robert Purvis strongly admired his Moroccan grandmother. “Through her, he developed a lifelong identification with the African race and a passionate hatred of slavery,” Bacon wrote.
Purvis received his early education in Philadelphia at the Clarkson Hall, a school for black children, run by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society — one of the first organizations ever to advocate for ending slavery in the US. He also studied at Amherst Academy in Massachusetts.
The activist began advocating for the abolition of slavery from a young age. He defended slaves both through public speeches and writings.
Robert Purvis became a prominent officer of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He also served as president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society between 1845 and 1850.
The Moroccan-American additionally served as president of the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia. The organization helped runaway slaves escaping from southern states, where slavery was legal to pass safely through Philadelphia on their way to the northern states, known as “free states” where slavery had been abolished.
Between 1837 and 1851, the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia operated the famous “underground railroad” — a network of secret routes and safe houses — allowing “fugitive slaves” to regain their freedom. At its peak, the network facilitated the rescue of one slave every day.
Robert Purvis, as the main organizer of the network, earned the nickname “The President of the Underground Railroad.”
Thanks to the Moroccan-American man’s activism, thousands of slaves were able to become free. Purvis, meanwhile, became an emblematic figure that marked the post-independence history of the US.
As the US embassy put it, he was “a true hero and a source of pride” for Morocco and the US.