“No man in New England has performed more uncompensated labor for humanity, and especially for his own race, than William C. Nell,” wrote freed man William Wells Brown. Staunch integrationist, devoted abolitionist and author, William Cooper Nell was born on Dec. 20, 1816. He was the son of free parents Louisa and William Guion Nell of 64 Kendall St. on Beacon Hill.
In 1829, Nell attended the segregated Smith Grammar School on Belknap Street (now Joy Street). All-black schools were originally established at the behest of black Bostonians, whose children could not attend the city’s public schools owing to race prejudice.
As a child, Nell was smarter than most and passed, with distinction, an examination administered to children enrolled in the city’s public schools. He and two classmates were deserving of the Franklin Medal, awarded by the school board to white children who similarly passed their exams with distinction.
Mayor Harrison Gray Otis invited those children to a dinner celebration at Faneuil Hall, where their achievements were recognized. Nell and his two classmates, however, received no invitations. Instead, they received vouchers to purchase a biography of Benjamin Franklin at a local bookstore.
That childhood experience taught him a valuable lesson: black and white children, forced to attend racially segregated schools, are not treated alike. It also instilled in him a strong conviction that separate schools were wrong, and he was determined to abolish them.
With God’s help, Nell vowed to do his “best to hasten the day when color of the skin would be no barrier to equal school rights.” He realized, though, that bringing about that day would be no easy task. Integrating Boston’s schools was controversial. Secretary Horace Mann of the Massachusetts Board of Education took no stand on the issue for fear of losing valuable public school support.
White Bostonians, and even some black Bostonians, had lined up against school integration for a variety of reasons. Some whites found racial intermixing of white and black children distasteful. Others believed that school integration would ultimately lead to interracial marriage. Nonetheless, backed by his longtime friend and mentor, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Nell emerged as the major leader in the battle to integrate the city’s public schools — a battle that would be waged over more than a decade and on four fronts.
On the first front, Nell and other black citizens unsuccessfully petitioned Boston’s Grammar School Committee and Primary School Committee to abolish segregated schools in 1844 and 1845, respectively. The Primary School Committee voted 55 to 12 to uphold segregated schools in 1845. The following year, it adopted the report of its subcommittee, finding “the continuance of separate schools for colored children and the regular attendance of all such children upon the schools not only legal and just, but best adapted to promote the education of that class of our population.”
Concluding that the good of both classes of schools was best promoted by maintaining separate schools, it voted 59 to 16 to preserve racially segregated schools. In 1849, Nell collected 311 of 1,469 signatures for the petition for equal school rights, to no avail.
As did school committee members, some in the city’s African American community found good in racially segregated schools and resisted Nell’s effort to integrate them. Separatist Thomas Paul Smith, for instance, penned a letter which was published in “The Liberator” on February 15, 1850. He defended black parents in Boston who had opposed the abolition of separate schools. Apparently alluding to an article written by Nell that had called for integration, he wrote, “Many of us having children ourselves, for their sakes we are opposed to any measure which would interrupt or retard their elevation.”
Among other respected members of that community, he believed all-black schools to be institutions “of great advantage to colored people” when properly conducted. From “no other source can we obtain so much practical good,” Smith added.
On the second battlefront, black parents of grammar school-aged children boycotted the Smith School, claiming that the teachers at the school often lacked confidence in the abilities of black schoolchildren, neglected them, and consequently, those children performed poorly. Other parents removed their children from the Smith School solely to shield them from the degradation of forced segregation.
African American parents favored integrated schools because they permitted their children to successfully compete against white children intellectually. By 1844, for instance, John T. Hilton, a barber, had already withdrawn his daughter from the Smith School, where she was performing poorly. He enrolled her in an integrated school in Cambridge, where she soon became an honors student. The boycott of the Smith School was effective. Average attendance dropped from more than 100, before the boycott began in 1844, to 25 by the spring of 1850.
On the third front, by 1849 a constitutional challenge to the legitimacy of segregated schools had reached the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC). In “Sarah C. Roberts v. City of Boston,” Benjamin F. Roberts, one of the foremost in advocating the rights of his race, asked the city for damages because his daughter had been excluded from the public school closest to her home solely because of her color. Like other black parents, Roberts refused to enroll his daughter in a segregated school.
Charles Sumner and Nell’s friend, Robert Morris Jr., the second African American to be admitted to the practice of law in the United States, represented Roberts in the lawsuit. They claimed that Sarah’s exclusion from the school closest to her residence violated Massachusetts law, which provided that any child unlawfully excluded from public school instruction shall recover damages from the city. They also argued that her exclusion was an infringement upon her equal rights, found in Part One, Article I and VI of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.
Writing for the SJC, Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw conceded that black people were entitled by law “to equal rights, constitutional and political, civil and social,” but he found the regulation in question, which provided separate schools for black children, not a violation of any of these rights.
In short, Sarah had been lawfully excluded from the school nearest to her home. The “good” promoted in maintaining racially segregated schools outweighed the potential risk involved in requiring a five-year-old girl to walk an extra fifth of a mile to attend school. More than 45 years later on May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court would adopt the SJC’s “separate but equal” doctrine in the case of “Plessy v. Ferguson.”
The battle on the fourth front to eliminate racially segregated schools was a successful one. With the help of Hilton, Roberts and others, Nell was instrumental in having a bill passed in the Massachusetts legislature, outlawing separate schools among black and white children. It was signed into law by Governor Henry J. Gardner on April 28, 1855. Thus, Boston became the first major American city to integrate its public schools.
An “intelligent, well-informed citizen of color,” anxious “to elevate his race,” Nell studied law with abolitionist William I. Bowditch and contemplated becoming an attorney. But as a requirement for admission to the practice of law, he would have had to take an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution.
As a compromise between the slaveholding and non-slaveholding states, a provision mandating the capture, return and re-enslavement of members of his race was made part of that Constitution. An anti-slavery advocate and a man of principle, Nell never could have taken an oath to defend such a provision.
With John T. Hilton, Nell co-founded the Adelphic Union Library Association in 1838 for “the improvement of its members in Literature and general knowledge.” Frequently held at the Smith School, the Association meetings comprised lectures delivered by such distinguished abolitionists and orators as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips and Charles Lenox Remond. On March 8, 1841, Nell delivered a lecture before the Association entitled, “Knowledge: the Foundation of a People’s Prosperity.” “Knowledge is power,” he often said.
Nell was an advocate for the freedom and equality of black people. On May 28, 1842, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in “Prigg v. Pensylvania,” concerning the reclamation of fugitive slaves, Nell and others led a large gathering of black citizens to petition the “legislature to prohibit their officers and citizen’s from interfering to aid slaveholders in seizing and returning fugitive slaves.”
Nell figured prominently in the crusade to end slavery. With Benjamin Weeden and others, he established the New England Freedom Association in 1843, which merged with the Committee of Vigilance in 1850. The committee’s purpose was to assist fugitive slaves after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Nell also ran unsuccessfully for the Massachusetts legislature on the Free Soil Party ticket and participated in the Underground Railroad.
In October 1847, Nell moved to Rochester, N.Y., and worked as publisher of “The North Star,” the abolitionist publication of Frederick Douglass. During that time, he occasionally visited Boston to continue the battle to desegregate the city’s schools. He returned to Boston permanently in 1852.
As a contributing writer for “The Liberator,” Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, Nell promoted Boston’s African American businesses. On Jan. 25, 1854, for example, he took “much pleasure” in recommending Joshua B. Smith “as a most excellent caterer, hoping that those who may employee him may duly appreciate, and generously reward his labors for their gratification and entertainment.”
Probably first African American before emancipation to write black history seriously, Nell documented the contributions of black soldiers in America’s fight for independence, presenting their services to the notice of the public more than 20 years before the birth of Carter G. Woodson — the father of black history. The “Boston Daily Atlas” called his first book, “Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851),” “an interesting and faithful narrative, illustrating the patriotism and fidelity of the colored portion of American citizens.”
Nell said, “As a means of enlightening public sentiment on an interesting but much-neglected department of American history,” he was further “induced to make a compilation of facts portraying the patriotism and bravery exhibited by Colored Americans.” Thus, in 1855 he published his second book, “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution with Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: to Which is Added a Brief Survey of the Condition and Prospects of Colored Americans.”
Notwithstanding his published works, and his occupation as a clerk, accountant and copyist, for most of his life Nell never had a steady income. In 1861, however, John G. Palfrey, Postmaster of Boston, nominated him for a postal clerk position, making him the first African American to serve in the federal civil service. Nell held that position until his death from a stroke in 1874 at the age of 58.