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Nell, William C. (1816-1874)


Image Ownership: Public Domain

William C. Nell was an African American civic activist, abolitionist, and historian. Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Nell was the son of William Guion Nell, a prominent tailor and black activist. William C. Nell was introduced to racial inequality and black activism from birth. In the 1830s, he became politically active as a member of the Juvenile Garrison Independent Society where he wrote plays and hosted political debates while being mentored by William Lloyd Garrison.  Nell was a printer’s apprentice for Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator. Nell came of age in the 1840s, as a leader in the campaign to desegregate the Boston railroad (1843) and Boston performance halls (1853). He was also a founding member of the New England Freedom Association in 1842, a black Boston organization that assisted fugitive slaves in their efforts to gain freedom.

Nell’s activism had its greatest impact in ending segregation in Boston’s public education system. This campaign began in 1840, as Nell co-authored a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature that had over 2000 signatures from the black Boston community demanding school integration. Nell’s efforts to desegregate Boston’s schools initiated a century-long nationwide campaign which climaxed in Brown v. Board of Education (1954-55).

Nell the historian published Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851) and The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855) two of the earliest histories of African Americans.  In 1850 Nell ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Massachusetts Legislature on the Free Soil Party ticket.  In 1861, he became the first African American to hold a federal position as clerk in the U.S. Postal Department. Nell also co-founded the Massasoit Guards, a black military company (1854), and successfully petitioned Boston to acknowledge African American Revolutionary War hero Crispus Attucks through annual celebrations beginning in 1858 and eventually with a memorial on the Boston Commons in 1888. 

“William Cooper Nell (1816 - 1874),” in Boston African-American National Historic Site, National Park Service, (2002); William C. Nell, “The Triumph of Equal School Rights in Boston,” in Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham (eds.), Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900 (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1998).


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