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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 1854 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.

William Cooper Nell (1816 – 1874) was the first published African-American historian in the United States.  His comprehensive study of African-American contributions to the country’s military – Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812(1851) – appeared at a time when millions were still enslaved in the South, and most politicians believed that people of African descent were incapable of citizenship.

Nell was born and educated in Boston, the son of a nationally respected abolitionist family – his father, William Guion Nell, was a free-born tailor from Charleston, South Carolina, who settled in Boston in 1812 and helped create the radical Massachusetts General Colored Association (1826), an all-black predecessor of William Lloyd Garrison’s New England Anti-Slavery Society (1832).

William C. Nell’s historical writings were rooted in his concern for racial equality and abolition, causes that emerged from both his family’s involvement in the local anti-slavery movement, and his own experiences with racial inequity.  As a child at the Abiel Smith School across the Street, Nell won the prestigious Franklin Medal for scholarship, but he and two other black students were prevented from formally accepting the award due to segregation.   This inspired him to lead a community-wide legal challenge to segregated public education during the 1830s, which eventually led to legal desegregation of the city’s public schools in 1855.  After decades spent as a printer and writer in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator offices on Cornhill Street, Nell helped recruit African-American men for the Union Army, and he was eventually appointed to the Federal Post Office in 1863, the first such appointment for an African-American man in the country’s history.  At this house on Smith Court, Nell also hosted fellow African-American abolitionists, writers, and artists, including the ante-bellum poet and cornetist, Elijah W. Smith, and the author and activist, William Wells Brown.  Brown’s Clotel; or the President’s Daughter(1853) was the first African-American novel published in the United States.

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.