William Cooper Nell is often regarded as the first scholar of African American history. He was born in 1816 in Boston to activist parents. He joined the abolitionist movement at a young age. In the 1830s, he joined of the Juvenile Garrison Independent Society, where he was mentored by William Lloyd Garrison. In the 1840s, he started working for Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator,. In 1842 he founded the New England Freedom Association, which worked to assist fugitive slaves. Nell was also an essential part of the effort to desegregate schools beginning with a petition in 1840 to integrate Boston schools. Not only did he support integrated schools, but he also opposed the habit of separate abolitionist societies for blacks and whites.

His work as a historian began in 1851with the pamphlet, Colored American Patriots which described the little known history of black military heroes from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. He later published a book on the same subject. These efforts towards recognition of African American soldiers culminated in a successful petition to acknowledge the heroism of Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the Revolutionary War. The petition called for an annual celebration of Attucks in Boston starting in 1858. Attucks eventually also received a memorial on Boston Commons in 1888. Nell, who worked for the US Post Office in Boston in 1863, is also credited as being the first African American to serve as a federal employee.

William Cooper Nell (1816-1874)