William C. Nell, pioneering Black historian

William Nell
Mon, 1816-12-16

William Cooper Nell, a Black lecturer, journalist, and historian was born on this date in 1816.

He was born in Boston to William and Louise Cooper. A frequent reader of William Lloyd Garrison’s, “Liberator,” Nell joined the antislavery movement and began working for the Liberator newspaper in the 1840s. At many of the antislavery functions in Boston, he was Garrison’s personal representative. He became active in the Underground Railroad, until ill health forced him to withdraw.

In 1851, he became assistant to Frederick Douglass and soon after published his own pamphlet on "Colored American Patriots" in the Revolution and the War of 1812. This evolved into the book for which he is best known. Nell drew his stories from personal accounts, cemetery records, and research. His book includes an introduction by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nell has been credited with saving the stories of many Black soldiers from obscurity.

His description of the first martyr to the Revolution, Chrispus Attucks, brought a key Black figure into American history, but his efforts to have a monument erected to Attucks was unsuccessful in 1851. In protest of the Dred Scott decision, Nell organized the very first Crispus Attucks celebration in America. After the war ended, Nell became a party in identifying the efforts of the Black soldiers in the Civil War. Nell is considered by Carter Goodwin Woodson to be the first African-American historian.

Nell is also is acknowledged to be the first federal employee of the United States, having been employed in the Boston Post Office in 1863. He also assisted in integrating public schools in Massachusetts. William Cooper Nell died May 25, 1874.

Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century.
Edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier
Copyright 1998, University if Illinois Press
ISBN 0-252-06213-2

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Nell, William Cooper