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William Cooper Nell

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3 Smith Court
Boston, MA 02114 United States

“How sublime a thing it is

To suffer and be strong…”

The above is taken from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and quoted in the conclusion of William Cooper Nell’s history, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. The book, published in 1855 with an introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is one of the first works of African American history by a black man. Using primary documents—including public records, archives, newspapers, and ephemera—as well as interviews, Nell drew attention to the role black Americans had played in the Revolutionary War. In particular, he revived public memory of Crispus Attucks; son of an African slave and a Native American woman, Attucks was the first man shot and killed in the Boston Massacre, and therefore the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War.

Nell was born in Boston to William Guion Nell, a prominent abolitionist of the 1820s. He faced extensive discrimination in school and ultimately studied to be a lawyer, though never practiced, refusing an oath to support the Constitution. Nell then served on the staffs of two important abolitionist newspapers: William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Frederick Douglass’s North Star. His true causes, however, were African American history and desegregation. In the 1840s, Nell lobbied for the integration of schools, bringing a petition to the state legislature with over 2,000 signatures, arguing for higher education for African Americans, and encouraging black students. He was also instrumental in the fight for the integration of trains and theaters in Massachusetts, both of which were won by the mid-1850s. In 1855, Boston schools were desegregated, and Nell’s first major history, The Colored Patriots, was released.

Between 1850 and 1857, Nell lived at 3 Smith Street, a boarding house where several other abolitionists had rooms. Nell, in conjunction with fellow resident James Scott, harbored escaped slaves as part of the Boston Vigilance Committee. For their work, the building has been named a historic landmark, and is often referred to as the James Scott and William C. Nell House.

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Did You Know?

Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.