Abolitionist William Cooper Nell fought for integrated schools

Anthony W. Neal | 5/23/2012, 8:21 a.m.

“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.   

The Integrationist

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.