William Cooper Nell
View by Horace Seldon
In some attempts to trace the nature and closeness of contacts between Garrison and people of color I have cited items in the Liberator, which provide help in assessing that relationship, its constancy, its nature, the “content” of what drew them together. The sheer number of times when Nell “appears” in the Liberator, complicates this attempt. In the course of tracing entrances of William Cooper Nell in the Liberator, there are over thirty times when he is named with a principle reference; these thirty being only the times I chose to record.
If a reader wants to view those instances, it can be done at the website, theliberatorfiles.com by bringing up the appropriate items under the name, Nell, William Cooper. Here I will only summarize some of the content which will be found in those items.
Nell’s central role in the long struggle for Equal School Rights occupied much of the story of his late life, and that is reflected often in the Liberator, including times when he and Garrison appeared together at public gatherings or before legislative bodies. At least one report in the Liberator gave clear witness to divisions within the community. There were times when a faction of the community favored keeping the separate school. As the struggle continued locally in Boston, there were several articles in the Liberator which reported on Nell’s contact with and interest in similar school struggles in nearby states, especially Rhode Island. Finally, the December, 1855 community gathering to celebrate the legislative act which brought an end to the “separate” school was the climax of that struggle, recorded with an exciting report in the Liberator.
Beyond the Equal School Rights campaign, Nell’s wide influence was recorded in the Liberator in numerous other efforts. Examples of that coverage in the newspaper include:
The Liberator reported on his regaling the Whig Party, speaking for Free Soil.
He was reported active in criticism of Colonization, during a Convention of New England Colored Citizens.
Suffrage is an issue he supported strongly, reported in the Liberator.
Daniel Webster’s role in the 1850 compromise brought a strong rebuke from Nell, reported in the Liberator. (Those familiar with Garrison’s view of Webster will imagine the delight with which Garrison reported on that!)
The same strong condemnation came from Nell as the Liberator reported on his response to the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, in 1857.
Personal controversies which came over Nell’s use of words, were reported in the Liberator. Nell was reported as the subject, at different times, of criticisms from George Putnam and Frederick Douglass. The reports can be read with a sense that the Liberator was offered as a vehicle for the hope of clarity and understanding. There was one particularly poignant report in the Liberator, in which Lucretia Mott expressed concern about words which Nell had used in praise of women, but which sounded condescending to Mott. The offer of response and reconciliation was there.
There were items in the Liberator which included a time when Nell encouraged people to offer shelter and employment for those who were fleeing from slave catchers.
Notice of Nell’s book about the service of Colored Americans in the wars of1776, and 1812 appeared as an “ad”, with encouragement to read it.
Discrimination in Nell’s personal life was recorded as the Liberator included Nell’s own story of how he was treated as a young student, entitled to receive a Franklin medal, earned by superior performance in school. At a city-wide public event, rather than being in an honored place with the white boys, Nell was there to serve as a waiter! The story had been widely repeated, and appeared in the Liberator, when Nell told the story, later in life, at a public meeting in Cambridgeport. At another time the Liberator, reported that Nell and friends were excluded from attending an opera.
Nell was reported in the Liberator as active in the community move to erect a monument to Crispus Attucks, slain in the 1770 Boston Massacre. Nell spoke at least once in community celebrations regarding that historic event. His awareness of history was also recognized in a Liberator article, when Nell referred to the early “immediatist”, the English Elizabeth Heyrick. Readers today will note this article, understanding also the influence of Heyrick’s work on both Benjamin Lundy and Garrison .
There were some tender moments between the two men, reported in the Liberator. When the leaders of the colored community gathered to present Garrison with a pitcher, it was Nell who made the presentation.
The portrait of Garrison, by Grozelier, presented to him by the community, was initiated by Nell., reported in the Liberator.
There was one “lonesome” letter when Nell wrote to Garrison, from Rochester, where Nell lived for a while. In the letter Nell yearned for a warmer climate, eager to be back in Boston. It is easy for this writer/reader to be subjectively sure that there is a strong yearning from Nell also to be at home with his friends. At another point, Nell characterized the leadership of Garrison by saying that Garrison took “the stand point of the slaves as his own”. Letters to Garrison from Nell often addressed him with praise as one worthy of eminence.
Each of these men was “on fire”, and in the fire their friendship grew..