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William Cooper Nell (1816-1874)

by Margot Minardi, Reed College

As a twelve-year-old at Boston’s African Meeting-House School, William Cooper Nell won a prize for the top academic performers in the city’s schools. When he and the other black winners were denied invitations to the awards banquet, Nell got himself hired as a waiter as his only way in to a dinner he knew he had a right to attend. Looking back on this episode decades later, he explained, “the impression made upon my mind by this day’s experience deepened into a solemn vow, that, God helping me, I would do my best to hasten the day when the color of the skin would be no barrier to equal school rights.”

William Cooper Nell portrait

William Cooper Nell

Indeed, Nell became a tireless advocate of racial integration, in the military and social institutions as well as in schools. He critiqued not only segregationist practices instituted by whites but also separatist churches and voluntary organizations formed by blacks, such as the ones to which his own father, William Guion Nell, belonged. Spending most of his life in Boston, William Cooper Nell was a member of the abolitionist circle surrounding William Lloyd Garrison and worked for Garrison’s antislavery newspaper, the Liberator. He also served briefly as publisher of Frederick Douglass’s North Star in Rochester, New York. In addition to abolitionism, Nell advocated a range of beliefs and reforms popular in the mid-nineteenth century, including women’s rights, temperance, and spiritualism.

Perhaps Nell’s most valuable weapon in his antislavery arsenal was history. Although he frequently wrote articles for the Liberator and other activist newspapers, Nell’s magnum opus was The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). A product of Nell’s painstaking research in government archives, newspapers, and graveyards and his interviews with survivors of the Revolutionary War and their descendants, this compendium gathered every available scrap of information on African American involvement on the patriot side of the Revolution. The immediate motivation for this research was the Massachusetts legislature’s refusal to erect a monument to Crispus Attucks, the runaway slave shot by the British in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. Today, Attucks is widely regarded as the first American casualty of the Revolution; in the mid-nineteenth century, before Nell’s publications, he had been all but forgotten.

Nell’s goal in recovering the memory of Attucks and other men and women of color who had supported the American Revolution was to give righteous fire to the abolitionist movement. Some other abolitionists—notably, his erstwhile friend Frederick Douglass—took issue with Nell’s focus on black men and women who had supported the rebellion against Britain, rather than those who had revolted against slavery. But Nell believed that highlighting African American patriotism in the past would help make the case for black freedom and citizenship in the present: he insisted that in his history, “each name and every fact has its use.” Nell’s politically purposeful history earned him acclaim from some surprising corners. Martin Delaney, the abolitionist and emigrationist often called the “father of black nationalism,” proclaimed that Colored Patriots “should be read by every American the country through.”

Nell’s linkage of history and politics reached a critical point in 1857, when the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision found that African Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect” and were not American citizens. In response, Nell organized a series of annual commemorations of Crispus Attucks’s martyrdom in Boston. He advertised the 1858 event as a “commemorative festival,” taking place in Faneuil Hall (site of key debates of the Revolution), but he also announced it as a “protest against the Dred Scott decision.” In the Attucks commemorations and elsewhere, Nell’s historically informed activism acknowledged that for most of American history, black men and women had been denied social and political rights. But he insisted on calling attention as well to historical models of African American heroism and cooperation between white and black patriots. In the deepest sense, Nell shared the conviction of many activists, past and present, that looking backward was an impetus and not an impediment to a better future.

Find out more: Nell’s Colored Patriots of the American Revolution is available online in its entirety here. William Cooper Nell: Selected Writings, 1832-1874, edited by Dorothy Porter Wesley and Constance Porter Uzelac (Black Classic Press, 2002), includes a biography and many of Nell’s published and unpublished writings. Wikipedia provides an outline of Nell’s activities on behalf of abolitionism and civil rights. Readers interested in the Boston black and abolitionist communities in which Nell was active might wish to visit the Boston African American National Historic Site in person or explore the websites African Americans in Antebellum Boston or the Boston African Americana Project. Books that devote significant attention to Nell and his context include Stephen Kantrowitz, More than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889 (Penguin, 2012), and Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts (Oxford University Press, 2010).