William Cooper Nell (16 December 1816 – 25 May 1874) was an American abolitionist, journalist, author, and civil servant. As an historical author his books, Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851) and Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855) became available to the public. These represented the premier exhaustive studies of African Americans.
Read William Cooper Nell's review of Linda, the Slave Girl, published in The Liberator in 1861. Nell was born in Boston, Massachusetts to William and Louise Cooper. He came by his abolitionist beliefs naturally, as his father was an important figure in the movement, having helped to create the Massachusetts General Colored Association in the 1820s. Nell led a fairly average life until racial injustice began to affect him in the same way it had his father. This first began in 1829 when, because of his African American heritage, the academically deserving Nell did not receive the award normally given to excellent students upon graduation from the Smith School. Ironically enough, the award was financially supported by the estate of anti-slavery advocate Benjamin Franklin, so as somewhat of a consolation prize, the committee gave Nell the famous, The Life of Ben Franklin.
Nell did not take the insult sitting down and, spurred by this insult and inspired by the emergence of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, he decided to challenge race-based discrimination and segregation, much as his father had in the previous generation. Nell was particularly interested in encouraging the intellectual and social well-being of young African-Americans. He never agreed with segregation on any terms, especially the existence of separate abolitionist organizations for blacks and whites. This dedication to integration even prompted him to undo his father’s abolitionist efforts by dismantling the Massachusetts General Colored Association.
Nell studied law in the early 1830s; however he was never certified as a lawyer because he would not swear allegiance to the Constitution of the United States. He believed it advocated the enslavement of millions African Americans throughout the South and so he could claim no loyalty to it. Around this time, Nell also began his association with acclaimed white abolitionist Garrison and with The Liberator. This connection would continue until the paper’s termination in 1865. Nell fought for the ideals of Garrison unfalteringly throughout the abolitionist campaign.
Striving towards integration of education, Nell began working against the current system of segregated schools for black and white children in Massachusetts. It proved to be a long and frustrating task, but 1855 brought Nell and his colleagues a victory; African American students in Massachusetts were granted the right to study alongside their white classmates. Nell also worked to encourage young African Americans to educate themselves outside of the public school system. William Lloyd Garrison was quoted as saying that, “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, Nell was influential in beginning the Freedom Association, an all-black organization which helped runaway slaves who had fled to the North. In this case, Nell was open to the idea of a solely African American group since he believed it was doing something closer to the hearts of blacks than whites. Interestingly, Nell let it be known throughout abolitionist circles and even publicly in abolitionist papers that the Freedom Association was not merely advocating abolition, but was in fact actively breaking the law by helping runaway slaves.
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 Nell’s close friend Garrison. Nell ended all contact with Douglass when Douglass threw his weight behind the Colored National Council and the Manual Labor School, both of which represented the sorts of segregated abolitionism that Nell detested.
In 1850, Nell lost the Free-Soil candidacy for legislature in his home state. That same year, the Fugitive Slave Law gave Nell new inspiration to continue the fight against slavery. He was prompted to create the Committee of Vigilance, which served a similar purpose to that of the Freedom Association of 1842, but was much more illegal at this point. He encouraged and engaged in the “Underground Railroad”. During 1855, The Liberator employed Nell to journey around the Midwest and study African American anti-slavery efforts.
After the publication of the devastating Dred Scott decision in 1858, Nell orchestrated a remembrance of black Revolutionary martyr Crispus Attucks to remind people of the civil status of African Americans at the time of American separation from England. That same year, Nell organized the Convention of Colored Citizens of New England. This action was decidedly in opposition to his earlier abhorrence of segregated abolitionism, but he argued that this new insult to blacks constituted sufficient reason to act separately.
Nell spent the time between publications working for legislation to allow blacks into the Massachusetts military, one of the few struggles of his life in which he was not successful.
The Civil War and Nell's Death
The Civil War saw Nell involved in the fight to get blacks into the Union Army. In 1861, he became a postal clerk in Boston, earning the distinction of becoming the first African American to be installed in a national office.
After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Nell continued to work to integrate common areas in his native city, an endeavor in which he was triumphant toward the end of his life. Nell’s career in abolitionism was ended when he was killed in 1874 by a stroke at the age of 58.