As a journalist and author, William Cooper Nell continuously exposed the plight of black Americans, particularly as an advocate for the abolition of slavery. He was an historian as well, and published books on the role Africans played in the shaping of the country (Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 in 1851 and Colored Patriots of the American Revolution in 1855). He also fought for better education for blacks.
In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper The Liberator dated February 16, 1857, Nell demanded "equal rights for colored schoolchildren." Though many would argue about the difficulties for blacks in the South, Nell focused on the North, noting that more work was needed. "The theory of an equal common school system is yet to be realised throughout the entire North," he wrote. He documents conditions in his native Boston, as well as in Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania. He especially notes that black families are paying taxes and, therefore, have a right to public education.
Rather than focusing on the negative, however, Nell gives examples of successful progress for education. As he concluded: "These cheering indications should stimulate the friends of humanity to continued well-doing, for success will ultimately bless all their labors."
Nell himself was the product of a segregated school system. Like most black people in Boston, he studied at the Abiel Smith School. Upon graduating, his accomplishments were impressive enough to merit one of several awards for Boston schoolchildren. However, because he was black, he was not allowed to attend the awards ceremony. He determined to "hasten the day when the color of your skin would be no barrier to equal school rights."
*Much of the information in this post can be found in William Cooper Nell: Nineteenth-Century African American Abolitionist, Historian, Integrationist; Selected Writings 1832-1874.