Nell, William Cooper

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Nell, William Cooper

December 20, 1816
May 25, 1874

The historian and abolitionist William Cooper Nell was born in Boston and graduated with honors from the city's African school. However, despite his achievements, Nell was excluded because of color from citywide ceremonies honoring outstanding scholars. That incident inspired him to lead a campaign to integrate Boston schools during the 1840s and early 1850s. He also championed equal access to railroads, theaters, and militia service. Nell joined the rising antislavery movement in 1831 and became one of the closest and most loyal African-American associates of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In later years Nell supported himself through work as a legal copyist.

In the early 1840s, Nell began a lengthy affiliation with Garrison's Liberator, writing articles, supervising the paper's Negro Employment Office, corresponding with other abolitionists, and representing Garrison at various antislavery functions. Nell moved to Rochester at the end of the 1840s, where he became the publisher of Frederick Douglass's newspaper, the North Star (1847). By 1850 he had returned to Boston, where he ran unsuccessfully for the Massachusetts Legislature on the Free Soil Party ticket He also worked on the Underground Railroad at this time. When conflict arose between Douglass and Garrison after 1851, Nell eventually sided with Garrison, although his own political posture was probably somewhere in the middle.

Nell believed that African-American history could be a useful tool in stimulating racial pride and advancing the struggle against slavery and racial prejudice. He wrote two pioneering historical works, the pamphlet The Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851), and the book Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). His careful scholarship and innovative use of oral sources contributed in important ways to the developments of African-American historiography. Beginning in 1858, to protest the 1857 Dred Scott decision, Nell began organizing annual Crispus Attucks Day celebrations in Boston to commemorate African-American contributions to the American Revolution and to justify black claims to full citizenship. In 1861 he was appointed a postal clerk in Boston, becoming probably the first African American named to a position in a federal agency. He held this post until his death, from "paralysis of the brain," in 1874.

See also Dred Scott v. Sandford ; Liberator, The ; Douglass, Frederick; Underground Railroad


Browne, Patrick T. J. "'To Defend Mr. Garrison': William Cooper Nell and the Personal Politics of Antislavery." New England Quarterly 70 (1997): 415442.

Smith, Robert P. "William Cooper Nell: Crusading Black Abolitionist." Journal of Negro History 55 (1970): 182199.

Wesley, Dorothy Porter. "Integration Versus Separatism: William Cooper Nell's Role in the Struggle for Equality." In Courage and Conscience: Black and White Abolitionists in Boston, edited by Donald M. Jacobs, pp. 207224. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

roy e. finkenbine (1996)
Updated bibliography