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Colored Patriots of NH

About William Cooper Nell
(1816 – 1874)

William C NellBest known today for his collected biographies of African-American patriots, abolitionist William C. Nell deserves much attention for his lifelong struggle for civil rights. Although he studied law, Nell refused to apply to the bar because he would not take an oath to a Constitution that did not recognize the rights of slaves. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Nell campaigned to abolish separate schools for black children.

In 1851 he became assistant to Frederick Douglass and soon after published his own pamphlet on "Colored American Patriots" in the Revolution and the War of 1812. This evolved into the book for which he is best known and is excerpted here. Nell drew his stories from personal accounts, cemetery records and research. His book includes an introduction by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. She writes that reading Nell's book might "give new meaning and self-respect to the race here represented."

Some credit Nell with saving many black soldiers from obscurity. In his introduction, Nell hopes he can "rescue from oblivion" the heroic stories of his race. His account of the first martyr to the Revolution, Chrispus Attucks, brought a key black figure into American history at a time when almost all African-Americans were excluded. Nell's attempt to have a monument erected to Attucks was unsuccessful in 1851.

Nell is also credited as the first African-American to publish a significant collection of black biographies, though he was not a professional historian. A native free person, Nell wrote in what is described as the "naturalist idiom" popular in his time period and his focus was on soldiers and patriots. His work has, at times, been criticized as more enthusiastic than scholarly. William Nell is also distinguished as the first black American to hold a federal civilian post. He worked as a US postal clerk from 1861 until his death in 1874.

© First published online here in 1997. Updated 2005..

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