William Cooper Nell was an abolitionist, creator, and historian who composed an outstanding work featuring the accomplishments of Black individuals in the American Revolution. Nell was born December 16, 1816 in Boston, Massachusetts, and his father was a prominent figure in the anti-slavery movement.
An excellent student, Nell won honors for his academic marks but was denied access to a dinner to celebrate with his other classmates due to his race. This motivated him to take a job as a waiter to attend the dinner, and to also make it his life’s mission to combat segregation and racism on several levels.
Inspired by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Nell began working in the anti-slavery movement and was mentored by Garrison before working for The Liberator newspaper. Using the platform to advance his anti-slavery activism, Nell wrote several stories for the paper and other outlets while also spearheading a movement to assist fugitive slaves from the South to navigate freedom in the North.
Among his early acts of civil rights service, Nell fought and successfully achieved the desegregation of Boston’s public school system. However, his shining jewel is considered his 1855 work, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution which he wrote in response to the Massachusetts state legislature’s failure to erect a statue in honor of Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the Boston Massacre.
The work examined the lives and achievements of all the Black people Nell could find that had some manner of involvement in the American Revolution, which makes him a Black history pioneer. According to some sources noted historian Carter G. Woodson considered Nell the first Black historian. He is also known as the first Black federal employee as well.
Nell passed on this day in 1874 at the age of 57.