Dr. Charles Burleigh Purvis: An Activist

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Charles Burleigh Purvis was born in 1842 in Philadelphia, PA.  His father was the well-known abolitionist, Robert Purvis, and his mother was Harriet Forten.  She was the daughter of the well-known African-American activist and businessman, James Forten.  Yes, Charles Purvis was Jame Forten’s grandson.

Charles Purvis grew up in a family that was active against slavery, on both his mother’s side and his father’s side.

Purvis attended Oberlin College for two years, then he attended and graduated from a medical school in Ohio.

Charles Purvis would go on to become intimately involved with Howard University (and its hospital) from almost its inception.

According to him and according to other accounts, during the Civil War thousands of African Americans came to the nation’s capital—escaping from their places of bondage.  As the need to provide medical care for them grew, a camp called, “The Contraband Camp,” was founded to help care for their needs.  The camp was under the control of the War Department and it eventually became known as Freedman’s Hospital.

Once the actual Freedman’s Bureau was established, the hospital was moved under its control.  

When Howard University was established, in 1867, the hospital’s building and grounds were transferred to the university for educational purposes.

When the Freedmen’s Bureau was placed under the War Department, the trustees and the medical faculty of the university sought get the oversight for the hospital transferred to some other department of the government.  

When this and other issues came up, Charles Purvis took it upon himself to personally lobby members of Congress in both the House and the Senate and their appropriations committees.

Purvis felt that it was extremely important for Howard University to maintain its Medical College and that the opportunity for black children to study medicine, dentistry and pharmacy had to remain viable.

He lobbied for control of the hospital to be placed under Howard University and that appropriations be made for the construction of new buildings.

Also, he argued that the university’s students were excluded from other hospitals and that it was of paramount importance to train them, thoroughly.

Dr. Charles Purvis worked tirelessly on behalf of Howard University’s hospital and its Medical School.  

In fact, at one point in time, he was the only African American in charge of a hospital, of any kind, in the entire nation.

In 1883 he was selected to give the address to the graduating class.  In that address he spoke of the dangers of alcohol abuse and of tobacco.  It is interesting to me that he (and others) felt so strongly about the use of tobacco, back in the 1880s, when our government didn’t require changes to cigarette labels until the 1960’s.

His words also ring true to me as it relates to the substance abuse problems we see in our country and in our communities today.

He said of abuse:

There is no other habit among people that is calculated to undermine, physically, intellectually and morally than this one.

He said of tobacco use:

I call your attention to the growing abuse in the use of tobacco, especially among our children.  It is a sad sight to witness the practices of the multitudes of little boys who go daily to and from our public institutions of learning.

I think this final quote speaks directly to the issue of substance abuse in our society.  He said:

There can be no perpetuity for our institutions; there can be no future of the race if these practices…go unchallenged and unchecked.


© 2017 Danita Smith, Red and Black Ink, LLC.


Medical History: Charles Burleigh Purvis.  Journal of the National Medical Association, January, 1953, Vol. 45, No. 1.

Simmons, William J.  Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising.  Charles B. Purvis. (Cleveland: George M. Rewell & Co., 1887) Pg. 690 - 693.


Men of Mark, 1887.

Danita Smith