Civil War Wiki
William Cooper Nell
Born 16 December 1816(1816-12-16)
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Died 25 May 1874 (aged 57)
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Occupation Journalist, author, civil servant
Parents William and Louise Cooper

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.[1][2]


Early years[]

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.[2]

Abolitionist work[]

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.[1][3] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.[1] 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.[2]

Later efforts[]

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.[2]

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”.[1] During 1855, The Liberator employed Nell to journey around the Midwest and study African American anti-slavery efforts.[2]

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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[1]

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.[1]


  • Nell, William Cooper (1851). Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812. New York: Printed by Prentiss & Sawyer. OCLC 34068998. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1855). The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons. Boston: Robert F. Wallcut. OCLC 220677587. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1856). Triumph of equal school rights in Boston proceedings of the presentation meeting held in Boston, December 17, 1855, including addresses by John T. Hilton, Wm. C. Nell, Charles W. Slack, Wendell Phillips, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Charles Lennox Remond.. Boston: R.F. Wallcut. OCLC 24988712. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1858). Faneuil Hall Commemorative Festival, March 5th, 1858. Protest against the Dred Scott "Decision." ...:. Boston: E.L. Balch. OCLC 79964803. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1858). Boston massacre, March 5th, 1770 : the day which history selects as the dawn of the American Revolution. Commemorative festival, at Faneuil Hall, Friday, March 5, 1858. Protest against the Dred Scott decision .... Boston: E.L. Balch. OCLC 20770632. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1858). The Centennial Anniversary of the Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770: The Day Which History Selects As the Dawn of the American Revolution, Signalized by the Patriotic Leadership and Martyrdom of Crispus Attucks Will Be Commemorated on Monday Evening, March 7th, 1870 in Joy Street Church. Boston: s.n.. OCLC 83299260. 
  • Nell, William Cooper; et al. (1860). Ninetieth Anniversary of the Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770.: The Day Which History Has Selected As the Dawn of the American Revolution. Commemorative Meeting, at the Menonian, on Monday Ev'g, March 5th, 1860. Boston: s.n. OCLC 191232677. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1860). Property Qualification or No Property Qualification: A Few Facts from the Record of Patriotic Services of the Colored Men of New York, During the Wars of 1776 and 1812, with a Compendium of Their Present Business, and Property Statistics. New York: For sale by Thomas Hamilton and Wm. H. Leonard. OCLC 191228058. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1863). Farewell to the Liberator. Boston: s.n.. OCLC 46897189. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1867). To the Friends of Human Liberty:: We the Undersigned Citizens of Massachusetts Thankful for the Abolition of American Slavery, View with Horror the Fact That Five Hundred Thousand of Our Brethern Groan Beneath the Chains of Slavery at Our Very Doors, in the Island of Cuba. ... It Is Therefore Resolved, That We Hold a Public Meeting, at the Menonian, on Monday Evening, December 23d. [1867], to Take the Necessary and Proper Action to Advance the Cause of Universal Freedom. Boston: s.n.. OCLC 191233682. 
  • Nell, William Cooper (1902). Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812. Philadelphia: H.T. Kealing. OCLC 46897189. 


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Finkenbine, Roy E. (2005). "Nell, William Cooper". American National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Smith, Robert P. (July 1970). "William Cooper Nell: Crusading Black Abolitionist". The Journal of Negro History (The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 55, No. 3) 55 (3): 182–199. doi:10.2307/2716420. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Porter Wesley, Dorothy (ed.); Porter Uzelac, Constance (ed.) (1999). Wiliam Cooper Nell. Dorothy Porter Wesley Archives. Retrieved 2008-09-12. 

External links[]