Carter G. Woodson wrote that Nell was the first African American historian.
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William Cooper Nell
William Cooper Nell was an active abolitionist in the American antislavery conflict. He was a protester, an activist for equal rights, an integrationist, and an organizer. He was also a business agent, an accountant, and a preparer of deeds and mortgages. He conducted the Liberator's employment bureau for free blacks and fugitive slaves. As the secretary for numerous organizations and conventions, Nell edited their proceedings and wrote many of the resolutions, presented toasts, often made brief statements and delivered lectures. Most of his publications were printed in the Liberator and other papers of the day.
William Lloyd Garrison was more than willing to open up the Liberator's pages to Nell and his ideas, especially after Nell's return from Rochester .... Article after article appearing in the Liberator during the 1850's bears the Nell signature and imprint, and the paper's point of view in relation to local black affairs is often colored by Nell's own attitudes. Garrison relied heavily on Nell to evaluate the position of Boston's black community.
Through his letters to Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Amy Kirby Post and Jeremiah Burke Sanderson, he painted the daily activities of the abolitionists and their visitors in the Antislavery office. His breadth of writings included articles, editorial comments, obituaries, biographies, notices of meetings, convention and meeting reports, and pamphlets and books.
"At age eleven, he began his education at home, and subsequently entered the school appointed by the Public School Committee which was located in the basement (Nell refers to this location as basement in one instance and as vestry in another) of the African Meeting House church off Belknap St (now known as Joy Street). Nell achieved a good record in the Primary and Grammar, the former being for pupils of ages below eight years, and the latter of ages eight to thirteen years. He must have studied under Wiliam Bascom since he was the teacher from 1824 to 1835. Upon graduation in 1829 from the Grammer School at the age of thirteen, he qualified for a city-wide award presented to "the most deserving pupils, general scholarship taken into account." The awards were made possible by a bequest from Benjamin Franklin, who had left 100 pounds sterling in his will for that purpose. These medals were initially given only to boys; however, in 1821, girls were included and they became known as City Medals.
As a colored person Nell was denied the medal. He wrote concerning these awards, which he felt were due to be given to the three deserving graduates from his school, Charles A. Battiste, Nancy Woodson, and himself: "In lieu of Franklin medals, legitimately our due, Mr. Armstrong gave each [of us] an order on Dea[con] James Loring's Bookstore for" a book entitled The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Nell and the others were omitted from the list of those invited to the awards dinner. Furious at this act of discrimination, he found a way to be present. He wrote:
"I made good my court with one of the waiters, who allowed me to serve others as a fee for serving myself the physical being then with me subordinate. Mr. Armstrong whispered to me, "you ought to be here with the other boys." Of course, the same idea had more than once been mine, but - - his remarks, while witnessing the honors awarded to white scholars only augmented my sensitiveness all the more by the intuitive inquiry, which I eagerly desired to express - If you think so why have you not taken steps to bring it about." The impression made upon my mind by this day's experience deepened into a solemn vow, that, "God helping me, I would do my best to hasten the day when the color of the skin would be no barrier to equal school rights."