William Cooper Nell (December 16, 1816 – May 25, 1874) was an African-American abolitionist, journalist, author, and civil servant who worked for school integration in Boston. Writing for The Liberator and The North Star, he helped publicize the anti-slavery cause. He helped found the New England Freedom Association and later the Committee of Vigilance, to aid escaping slaves after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. His histories, Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851) and Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855), were the first extensive studies published of African Americans. He is noted as the first African American to serve in the federal civil service, in the post office.
Nell was born in 1816 in Boston, Massachusetts to Louise Cooper, from Brookline, and William Guion Nell, from Charleston, South Carolina. His father was an important figure in the abolitionist movement, having helped to create the Massachusetts General Colored Association in the 1820s. Nell encountered racial discrimination as a student. In 1829 he was passed over for an award given to excellent students upon graduation from the Smith School, apparently because of his ethnicity. The award was financially supported by the estate of anti-slavery advocate Benjamin Franklin. The school committee instead gave Nell The Life of Ben Franklin, an autobiography.
Inspired by the founding of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator, Nell decided to challenge race-based discrimination and segregation, as his father had. Nell was particularly interested in encouraging the intellectual and social well-being of young African Americans. He was dedicated to integration and opposed the separate abolitionist organizations for blacks and whites. In his devotion to integration, he dismantled the abolitionist Massachusetts General Colored Association, which had been organized by his father.
Nell studied law in the early 1830s. He was never certified as a lawyer or admitted to the bar because he would not swear allegiance to the Constitution of the United States, as he believed it was a pro-slavery document. He was influenced by the negative opinions of William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. Around this time, Nell also began his association with acclaimed white abolitionist Garrison and his newspaper The Liberator. This connection would continue until the paper’s termination in 1865. Nell fought for the ideals of Garrison throughout the abolitionist campaign.
Nell began working against the current system of segregated schools for black and white children in Massachusetts, gathering 2,000 signatures from the black community on a petition to the state legislature. In 1855 Nell and his colleagues gained a victory; segregation was ended in Boston schools. Nell also encouraged young African Americans to learn outside of the public school system. William Lloyd Garrison said of him, “Perhaps no one has done so much—certainly no one has done more—for the intellectual and moral improvement of our colored youth.”
In 1843, Nell continued his crusade against segregation within the abolitionist movement by denouncing the Buffalo National Negro Convention. He claimed they served as, and promoted, exactly the type of separate abolitionism he was fighting against. On the other hand, he was influential in beginning the New England Freedom Association, an all-black organization which helped fugitive slaves in the North. In this case, Nell supported an African-American group since he believed its cause was closer to the hearts of blacks than whites. Nell publicized the Freedom Association’s direct aid to fugitive slaves as well as the abolitionist cause.
He was a leader in campaigns to desegregate public facilities: the Boston railroad (1843) and Boston performance halls (1853).
Nell worked with Frederick Douglass on his abolitionist publication, The North Star, from 1848 until 1851. He ended his work with Douglass during the latter’s feud with his close friend Garrison. Nell ended all contact with Douglass when the leader advocated the Colored National Council and the Manual Labor School, which represented the types of segregated institutions which Nell detested.
In 1850, Nell ran as a Free-Soil candidate for the legislature in Massachusetts, but lost. Passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Law that year required state law enforcement to aid in the recapture of slaves and increased penalties for those who helped them. Nell was inspired to renew his fight against slavery. He created the Committee of Vigilance, whose members swore to aid escaped slaves; it served a similar purpose to the Freedom Association of 1842, but was illegal under the new law. Nell also supported the “Underground Railroad”. In 1851, he and other petitioners requested money from the state legislature to commission a monument to Crispus Attucks, one of the first martyrs of the American Revolution. During 1855, The Liberator employed Nell to journey around the Midwest and study African-American anti-slavery efforts.
Nell was outraged by the US Supreme Court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1857, which said that ethnic Africans had no legal standing as they were not considered citizens under the Constitution. He organized a memorial celebration of the black Revolutionary martyr Crispus Attucks at Faneuil Hall, a traditional site of commemoration. He reminded people of the participation of African Americans in the fight for independence from Great Britain, and helped have Attucks recognized in the commemoration of the Boston Massacre That same year, Nell organized the Convention of Colored Citizens of New England. While it was contrary to his earlier dislike of segregated abolitionist efforts, he argued that the Scott decision was such an insult to blacks that they needed to act separately.
In his time apart from the newspapers, Nell worked for legislation to allow blacks into the Massachusetts militia. He did not succeed in this but lived to see blacks serve in United States forces during the Civil War.
The Civil War and later years
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Nell worked to have blacks accepted as soldiers in the Union Army. In 1861, he became a postal clerk in Boston, earning the distinction of becoming the first African American to serve in the federal civil service.
On April 14, 1869, Nell married Frances Ann Ames, the twenty-six year old daughter of Philip Osgood Ames, a barber of Nashua, New Hampshire and his wife Lucy B. (Drake) Ames. The Nells would have two sons, William Cooper, Jr. (1870-92) and Frank Ames (1872-81).