February 28, 2008 - Issue 266
Black History Month
Honoring a First in African American History:
William Cooper Nell and The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution
By Dr. Marion Kilson, PhD
Guest Commentator

In the midst of the turbulent decade preceding the Civil War, black Boston activist and journalist William Cooper Nell achieved a milestone in American historiography. Fully engaged in the decade’s battles challenging African American civic rights from the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 through the territorial expansion of slavery to the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, Nell also succeeded in completing The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Published in the summer of 1855, Nell’s book is considered to be the first research-based historical study by an African American.

In addition to writing this path-breaking volume, Nell created, championed, and chronicled equal rights battles of black Boston not only in the 1850s but throughout the antebellum decades. As an advocate for the civil equality of black Americans, William Cooper Nell personally challenged “colorphobia”; authored studies chronicling the military valor of blacks in American wars; wrote articles attesting to black social and cultural achievements; created educational, literary, and dramatic organizations; and inaugurated celebrations that confronted racial inequities.

As a Garrisonian abolitionist, Nell supported immediate emancipation of enslaved people and the achievement of equal rights in all spheres of life for African Americans. As an American of color, Nell sought political rights for African Americans and opposed efforts to exile free blacks from their homeland. As a humanitarian activist, Nell assisted self-emancipated blacks during their sojourns in Boston. As a political activist with personal experience of racial discrimination in his schooling and his daily life, Nell championed racial integration in public schools, public transportation, theatres, and other public places, as well as in the military; Nell also participated as a Boston delegate in national black political conventions and gatherings. Finally, as a man with broad cultural interests and concern for African American social uplift, Nell co-founded and led antebellum black Boston cultural and civic organizations, such as the Adelphic Union Library Association, Garrison Association, Garrison Independent Society, the Histrionic Club, New England Freedom Association, Union Progressive Association, and the Young Men’s Literary Society.

Three years after the publication of The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, Nell organized a Crispus Attucks Commemorative Festival in Faneuil Hall on March 5, 1858 to protest the Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that declared African Americans were not citizens. African American Attucks was the first patriot to fall during the Boston Massacre. At this celebration, fiery speeches by black and white abolitionists including John Rock, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, and Charles Lenox Remond were interspersed with songs titled Freedom’s Battle, Colored American Heroes of 1776, and Red, White, and Blue. This was the first of seven Attucks Commemorative Celebrations that Nell organized to replace July 4 as an Independence Day celebration for black Boston.

William Cooper Nell, however, was not simply a creator of and participant in significant events in black Boston during the antebellum decades, he also recorded them.

Almost every report of a black Boston community meeting and every article about black Bostonians’ social and cultural achievements from the late 1830s until 1865 in The Liberator bore the initials “W. C. N.” or the name “William C. Nell.” Thanks primarily to Nell’s numerous contributions, The Liberator - William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly anti-slavery newspaper - remains the best source on the cultural, social and political life of black Bostonians in the antebellum years.

A Black Bostonian

William Cooper Nell (1816-1874) was first and foremost a black Bostonian. Apart from twenty-one months when he was the first printer and publisher of Frederick Douglass’ The North Star in Rochester, New York, Boston was his home. Born on Beacon Hill in 1816 to free parents - William Guion Nell from Charleston, South Carolina and Louisa Marshall Nell from Brookline, Massachusetts - Nell was the eldest of four surviving children. His father was the proprietor of a successful tailoring business, a founder and leader in Massachusetts’ first abolitionist society - the Massachusetts General Colored Association, and a friend and neighbor of David Walker, creator of the influential and controversial pamphlet, David Walker's Appeal: To the Coloured Citizens of the World, which advocated slave insurrection as the road to emancipation. From early childhood, then, William Cooper Nell was exposed to community activism.

Transformative Experiences

As an adolescent, Nell had two transformative experiences that shaped his later life as a creator and recorder of milestones. The first, occurred when he was thirteen years old in 1829; the second, when he was fifteen in 1832.

In 1829, Nell graduated from the segregated Boston public school housed in the African Meeting House. At that time Boston public grammar school graduates of academic excellence were recognized as Franklin Scholars; Nell and two classmates were chosen as Franklin Scholars from the African School. While white students received a medal and an invitation to dine with the Mayor of Boston, black students received a voucher to purchase a biography of Benjamin Franklin at a local bookstore. William Cooper Nell was deeply affected by this discriminatory experience. He later said “The impression made on 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 (The Liberator, December 28, 1855:206-207).” From 1840 until 1855, Nell led the battle for equal school rights in Boston: he called community meetings on equal school rights, he recorded their minutes, he helped to arrange alternative schools for black families boycotting segregated schools, he collected hundreds of petitions first to the School Committee, then to the Department of Education, and finally to the Legislature. In 1855, the Massachusetts legislature desegregated the Boston public schools. Black Boston recognized that Nell was primarily responsible for achieving this milestone, for it held a celebration honoring him at which he received a gold watch “for his untiring efforts on behalf of Equal School Rights” and laudatory praise from such noted black and white abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Charles Lenox Remond.

The second transformative experience in Nell’s early life occurred on the snowy blustery night of January 6, 1832 when Nell was fifteen years old. Passing along Belknap Street on his way home, Nell noticed a light shining from a basement window of the African Meeting House. Peering through the window, Nell witnessed an historic event - the founding of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, for Nell saw William Lloyd Garrison and eleven other white men sign the society’s constitution, observed by several black men. Throughout his adult life, Nell was an ardent supporter of both Garrisonian abolitionism the cause and William Lloyd Garrison the man. Garrisonian abolitionism called not only for the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people but for the civil equality of African Americans. Nell’s adult life was devoted to these twin aspects of Garrisonian abolition.

With respect to the abolition of slavery, Nell advocated immediate emancipation and supported self-emancipated people in Boston and beyond. As an advocate for emancipation, Nell supported the integration of blacks into American society and opposed colonization schemes which would have sent free African Americans to Africa, the Caribbean, the far West, or Mexico. He presented his views not only in Boston but as a delegate to national African American Conventions in Buffalo, Troy, Rochester, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. As a supporter of self-emancipated people, Nell helped to raise funds for newly freed people in Washington, D.C. and for white supporters incarcerated for assisting enslaved people on their flights to freedom. He also offered direct assistance to self-liberated people who found their way to Boston from the South. In 1843, Nell helped to found the New England Freedom Association to assist fugitives; the Association merged with the interracial Boston Vigilance Committee in 1850 following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. The treasurer’s records of the Boston Vigilance Committee show that William Cooper Nell was second only to self-liberated Lewis Hayden in assisting new-comers to Boston in their passage from enslavement to self-emancipation on the Underground Railroad. As a Liberator staff member, Nell also ran an employment agency for newly-arrived African Americans, placing advertisements about positions and candidates for positions in the newspaper. Moreover, unlike pacifist Garrison, Nell advocated the use of force - if necessary - to achieve emancipation and to ensure freedom. Thus, he raised funds to support John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry and he warned fellow-Bostonians to be vigilant about man-catchers abroad on the city streets and to be prepared to defend themselves.

Precarious Personal Finances

Until he became a postal clerk in 1861 - the first African American to receive a non-military federal appointment, Nell never had a steady income. He worked for The Liberator from time to time; he read law for two and a half years with Boston abolitionist, William I. Bowditch, but never practiced as he would have had to swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution which he considered a pro-slavery document; he advertised his services as a clerk, accountant, and copyist; he helped his father as a tailor; he created lithographs of Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and others for sale, but until 1861 he never had a reliable income.

Historiographic Milestone

In 1855, Nell achieved a milestone in American historiography with the publication of The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, the first book-length scholarly history by an African American. As a second-generation black Boston activist and as a Garrisonian abolitionist, Nell made the case that civil equality was due to African Americans, because of their significant contributions to the founding of the nation. He wished to reveal the largely unrecognized history of African American military valor and patriotism, not only to enhance the understanding of sympathetic white Americans, but to encourage the aspirations for social advancement of African Americans. As a youth, Nell had found the limitations that racial prejudice placed upon his opportunities nearly over-whelming. A couple of years after the Franklin medal incident he had told his Sunday School teacher, “‘What’s the use in my attempting to improve myself, when, do what I may, I can never be anything but a nigger?’” [1] Fortunately for Nell and for black Boston, he triumphed over this view.

In his preface to The Colored Patriots, Nell states his aim “to rescue from oblivion the name and fame of those who, though ‘tinged with the hated stain,’ yet had warm hearts and active hands in the ‘times that tried men’s souls (p. 9).’” The full title of the book, however, reveals Nell’s larger intention: 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.

This ambitious pioneering book falls into two distinct parts: the first is a state by state presentation of the military services of men of color in all American wars and of bio-sketches of notable people of color as well as selected information about the quest for equal rights and a socioeconomic profile of people of color within each state; the second considers vital contemporary issues confronting people of color: their citizenship rights, their social and cultural advancement, and his guardedly optimistic assessment of the success of the abolitionist movement and the possibilities for attaining equity within a racially integrated American society. In the final pages his book, Nell writes:

“The Revolution of 1776, and in the subsequent struggles in our nation’s history, aided, in honorable proportion, by colored Americans, have…left the necessity of a second revolution, no less sublime than that of regenerating public sentiment in favor of Universal Brotherhood. To this glorious consummation, all, of every complexion, sect, sex, and condition, can add their mite, and so nourish the tree of liberty, that all may be enabled to pluck fruit from its bending branches; and, in that degree to which colored Americans may labor to hasten the day, they will prove valid their claim to the title, ‘Patriots of the Second Revolution ’” (p. 380)

Nell’s book is impressive not only for its wide-ranging scope but for its rich documentation. In his preface, Nell modestly states that “Imperfect as these pages may prove, to prepare even these, journeys have been made to confer with the living, and even pilgrimages to grave-yards, to save all that may still be gleaned from their fast disappearing records (p. 9).” In fact, in preparing his book, Nell undertook many more journeys to places and to publications than he admits. He obtained information from such repositories as the Massachusetts state house archives, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Suffolk County Probate Records Office; he published inscriptions from graveyards in Concord (MA), North Attleboro (MA), and Middletown (CT), as well as the Massachusetts state house. He drew upon his own personal memories and experiences of events and people; he conversed with friends and acquaintances; some of whom he provided him with documents. William H. Day, a black librarian in Cleveland, gave him an American Army report on the Battle of New Orleans, while Reverend Theodore Parker, a white abolitionist in Boston, provided him with a sketch of Long Island, New York Revolutionary soldiery; Dr. James M’Cune Smith, the erudite and cosmopolitan New York doctor, wrote him about the socioeconomic conditions and institutions of black people in his city, and Joseph Congdon, Esq. of New Bedford obtained the 1780 petition for equal rights submitted by Paul Cuffe and others to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Nell also reviewed federal legislation pertaining to colored citizenship, noting proscriptions upon it and the inconsistent application of certain proscriptions; he consulted state documents, such as Revolutionary petitions and resolves of the Massachusetts General Court and the memorial on equal suffrage presented to the Ohio General Assembly by J. Mercer Langston, African American lawyer and later legislator; he also perused organizational documents like the 1837 circular of the Anti-Slavery women of the United States on equal rights, and the purpose and membership of Boston’s African Society. In his quest for information on the military services and social conditions of people of color as well as distinguished individuals, Nell culled material from contemporary history books, articles in magazines, memoirs, obituaries, speeches, published letters, and newspaper articles. Nell reviewed articles from newspapers published in cities throughout the United States, including Boston, Worcester, New York, Hartford, Newark, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Richmond, Tallahassee, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The number and geographical range of these newspapers suggest that Nell relied heavily on articles published in The Liberator to which he had ready access as an employee and a subscriber. The breadth of Nell’s research for his path-breaking book is noteworthy.

In the October 26, 1855 Liberator and in a broadside promoting the book, Nell published reviews of The Colored Patriots that had appeared in the local and national press. Critical notice of the book appeared in the mainstream New York Tribune, Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, Providence Tribune, Kentucky Weekly News, Salem Register, Boston Evening Telegraph, Worcester Spy, Virginia Library Sentinel, and New Bedford Standard as well as in the anti-slavery and African American press, including the National Era, Ohio Anti-Slavery Bugle, National Anti-Slavery Standard, The Independent, and Zion’s Herald. Many reviewers commended Nell for his efforts. As an example of critical response to Nell’s book, the Boston Daily Chronicle considered that “Mr. Nell has done a good work, and done it well, too, in gathering together and placing before the world in a convenient form, numerous interesting facts that show how strong has been the spirit of patriotism in the bosoms of colored Americans, a race of men who would be perfectly justified in hating this country with savage hatred, so foully has it wronged them.”

During the final decade of his life, Nell worked to prepare a revised edition of Colored Patriots. In July 1865, he wrote a friend “I am hard at work upon the new edition of my Colored Patriots which in augmented chapters of 1776 and 1812 will contain a record of Colored American Services in the present rebellion. I desire to make it instrumental in promoting Equal Suffrage for Colored Citizens throughout the United States.” In October 1865, Nell wrote Wendell Phillips that his book was “now nearly ready for press,” but Nell was still seeking funding to underwrite the project in 1869 and in 1870 he was still working on the manuscript. The revised version of Colored Patriots was never published and the fate of the manuscript is unknown.

Nell’s contemporaries like William Wells Brown based their African American military studies on Nell’s work, later scholars of the American Revolution have criticized The Colored Patriots from various perspectives. Benjamin Quarles in his carefully researched 1961 The Negro in the American Revolution cites The Colored Patriots once and lists it in his bibliography; whether Quarles used Nell’s work as a starting point for his own carefully documented study is unknown. Nevertheless, Quarles implicitly questions Nell’s use of undocumented oral tradition. More recently, others have challenged “legends” that Nell included in his book. Such criticisms of Nell’s pioneering study do not detract from its overall value.

Recently Gary Nash has criticized Nell for failing to include a discussion of the thousands of enslaved people who fought with the British during America’s war for independence. The Colored Patriots presented “an imbalanced account of the African Americans’ Revolution because it ignored the huge number of men and women, most enslaved, who fled to and fought alongside the British in order to gain their freedom.” [2] Given Nell’s purpose to demonstrate that African Americans had fought and died for their country in all its international battles and not to portray the complete African American experience in the American Revolution, the validity of Nash’s criticism is dubious.

Whatever criticism may be made of William Cooper Nell’s research methods, findings, and analysis of more than 150 years ago, Nell assured his place in history as the author of the first research-based study of African American patriotism and valor as well as of the notable efforts of Colored Americans to achieve equality in American life and letters. The publication of The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution was a remarkable accomplishment for a man simultaneously playing leadership roles in Boston and national African American quests for equal rights and eking out a precarious livelihood while creating this milestone in American historiography.


Black Boston did not forget William Cooper Nell. For some years after his death in 1874 there was a William C. Nell community lecture; in 1886 efforts were made to erect a monument in his honor; in 1966, the house in Smith Court where he had boarded for a time was placed on the Black Heritage Trail; and in 1989 a headstone was erected on his Forest Hills Cemetery grave. Introducing his 1863 article on Nell, William Wells Brown eloquently captures Nell’s distinctive contributions, “No man in New England has performed more uncompensated labor for humanity, and especially for his own race, than William C. Nell.” [3] The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution was one of Nell’s memorably enduring contributions to African Americans in his time and ours.

BC Guest Commentator, Dr.Marion Kilson, received her Ph. D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University in 1967 and retired as Dean of the Graduate School at Salem State College (MA) in 2001. Since that time she has been a Museum Scholar at the Museum of African American History in Boston. This essay derives from her introduction to a new edition of William Cooper Nell’s The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution that she is preparing for the museum. Click here to contact Dr. Marion Kilson.


[1] Oliver Johnson, William Lloyd Garrison & His Times. (Boston, 1880), p.101.

[3] William Wells Brown,  The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (Boston, 1863), p.238.



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