William Cooper Nell: The First Published African American Historian in the United States


Abolitionist; Integrationist; Journalist; Author; Civil rights activist; Historian


William Cooper Nell was a change-maker whose labor towards humanity was priceless and beyond recompense. He was an enthusiastic integrationist, zealous abolitionist, a civil rights activist, an author, a respected and influential community leader.

His vision to redeem the black nation from rampant discrimination in the United States at the time was invaluable. Nell led blacks to attain freedom from slavery and segregation during his generation. Coretta Scott King reiterated that freedom is never won but earned.

Early Life

Nell was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1816. He was the son of William Guion Nell, from Charleston, South Carolina, and Louise Cooper, from Brookline.

Nell was a brilliant child and enrolled in the Smith Grammar School on Belknap Street (now Joy Street) in 1829.

Nell earned a distinction and, together with two of his classmates, became eligible for the Franklin Medal. They received no invitation to the award celebration because of their skin color. Instead, they received vouchers to buy Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.

This experience ignited Nell and gave him the determination to fight to abolish segregated schools. He became focused on stimulating racial pride and advancing the struggle against racial prejudice and slavery.

In the 1840s, Nell joined the antislavery movement and started working for the Liberator newspaper.

The Integrationist

Between 1844 and 1845, Nell and other black citizens petitioned Boston’s Grammar and Primary School Committees to abolish segregated schools.

Nell was influential in having a bill signed into law by Governor Henry J. Gardner on April 28, 1855, in Massachusetts. He gathered 2,000 signatures from the black community. Thus, Boston became the first major American city to integrate its public schools.

The Abolitionist

Nell studied law with abolitionist William I. Bowditch and expected to become an attorney. Being an anti-slavery advocate, he could not take an oath to defend the U.S. constitution. His commitment to integration led him to dismantle his father’s Massachusetts General Colored Association institution.

John T. Hilton and Nell established the Adelphia Union Library Association in 1838 and the Young Men’s Literary Society of Boston. Nell and colleagues led multitudes of black citizens to petition for the freedom of the fugitive slaves in 1842 as a reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the reclamation of fugitive slaves.

In 1843, Nell condemned the Buffalo National Negro Convention for supporting separate abolitionism. Together with Benjamin Weeden and others, they established the New England Freedom Association. This association merged with the Boston Vigilance Committee in 1850 to aid fugitive slaves.

Nell later attained desegregation of the Boston railroad in 1843 and performance halls in 1853.

The Author

In 1847, Nell worked as publisher of “The North Star,” the abolitionist publication of Frederick Douglass. In 1851, he produced his first publication, “The Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812.

Nell promoted Boston’s African American businesses as a contributing writer for “The Liberator,” Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper.

In 1855, Nell published his second book, “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution.” The refusal of the Massachusetts legislature to build a monument to Crispus Attucks motivated this move.

Later Efforts

In 1850, Nell lost in the Massachusetts state legislature. He supported Boston’s Underground Railroad to aid those fleeing southern bondage.

Nell fought for blacks to join the Massachusetts militia but only helped them serve in U. S. armed forces.


Nell married Frances Ann Ames on April 14, 1869. She was the daughter of Philip Osgood Ames and Lucy B. Ames. They bore two sons, William Cooper Nell, Jr. and Frank Ames.

Legacy and Honors

The William Cooper Nell House became designated as a National Historic Landmark. This house serves as a residential place in Beacon Hill. Nell lived there in the 1860s.

In 1861, Nell became the first black to serve as a federal employee of the United States, following nomination as a postal clerk.


After a lifetime of focus on social change and justice, Nell died on May 25, 1874, at 58, due to a stroke.

In his lifetime, Nell did not amass a vast fortune for himself. Instead, he made a historic landmark in the lives of African Americans.

He vowed to hasten a time in history when skin color would no longer be a barrier to equal rights. True to his dreams, he led the black community to attain equal school rights.


The Black Male Archives


  1. Abolitionist William Cooper Nell fought for integrated schools
  2. William Cooper Nell: Smith Court Leader
  3. William Cooper Nell


Preservation Media LLC


Leave a Reply