William C. Nell


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(1816–1874), historian, journalist, orator, and abolitionist.

Born into a Boston abolitionist family, William C. Nell attended an African American grammar school and graduated from an interracial school. As a student, he earned the right to an academic prize but, because of his race, was denied the award. The experience led him at an early age into battles against race discrimination and segregation in public schools. After studying law, Nell dedicated himself to antislavery work, lecturing, organizing meetings, and assisting fugitive slaves. He helped establish in 1842 the Freedom Association, an organization of African Americans who provided escaped slaves with protection, food, clothing, and shelter. Inspired by white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Nell joined the Liberator in the early 1840s. He managed the paper's Negro Employment Office and wrote articles, while continuing to lecture and organize antislavery meetings. Like Garrison, he consistently opposed separate African American antislavery conventions and organizations. In 1847, Nell moved to Rochester where he joined Frederick Douglass in publishing Douglass's newspaper, the North Star. While busy with antislavery work in Rochester, he maintained close ties with abolitionists in Boston. In 1850, he made an unsuccessful Free Soil Party bid for the Massachusetts legislature. In response to the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), Nell and other abolitionists created a Committee of Vigilance to assist and protect escaped slaves.

During a temporary but serious illness in 1851, Nell finished his pamphlet, Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812, one of the first pieces of historical writing devoted to the experiences of African Americans. Following the breach between Garrison and Douglass, Nell resigned at the North Star and in 1852 returned to Boston. In April 1855, after years of struggle led largely by Nell, Massachusetts desegregated its public schools. Later that year, with an introduction by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nell published The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, the first comprehensive work of African American history. Less narrowly focused than the title suggested, Colored Patriots was a wide-ranging treatment of African American history, containing biographies of “distinguished colored persons,” a survey of ”Conditions and Prospects of Colored Americans,” and a variety of historically significant documents. In 1858, in protest of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, Nell founded the Crispus Attucks celebration to honor the African American patriot killed in the Boston Massacre. During these years, Nell also assisted other African American writers. As early as 1854 he attempted to help Harriet A. Jacobs find a publisher and in 1860, introduced her to Lydia Maria Child, who edited Jacobs's narrative and secured its publication. During the Civil War, Nell used speeches, meetings, and the pages of the Liberator to urge the inclusion of African Americans in the Union army. In 1862, he became a postal clerk, one of the first such federal appointments for an African American, and he held the position until his death in 1874.

Nell was a key figure in antebellum African American letters, in part because of his connections to more famous antislavery writers. More significantly, Nell's historical writings have remained the most important early texts in African American historiography.


Subjects: Literature — United States History.

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