(1855) William C. Nell, “The Triumph Of Equal School Rights In Boston”

William Cooper Nell (1816-1874)
Public Domain Image, Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society (81.483)

In September 1855, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled in Boston v. Roberts that a separate school could not be maintained at taxpayer expense by the city of Boston. This decision marked the first significant victory in what would be a 99 year struggle to end de jure segregation culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. That struggle, however was in the future. On the night of December 17, 1855, Boston’s activists celebrated their victory at a dinner in honor of William C. Nell, the leader in the school desegregation campaign. At the end of the dinner Nell made the following remarks.

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen: The struggle for Equal School Rights, which for so long a series of years has taxed our hearts, our heads and our hands, having, through the aid of many friends, at length been triumphantly successful, it was but natural that the gratitude of parents and children should desire to make some record of the emotions awakened by such a signal and public good. With partial kindness, you have been pleased to make me the recipient of these honours, in recognition of the humble services it was my privilege to render the cause we all have loved so well.

Any attempt to express the feelings which swell my heart at this, the proudest moment of my life, it is no affection to say, would be wholly unavailing. Your own hearts can best interpret mine. To be surrounded by such a constellation of friends from various walks of life, comprising those who have known me from early boyhood, and those of but recent acquaintance—realizing the fact that this is their united testimonial, approving my course in so glorious a reform—to be elaborate on such a theme calls for abilities far transcending any that I possess. I should be doing injustice, however, to my own sense of right were I to allow the occasion to pass without referring to others whose words and deed, in promotion of the movement, should engrave their names indelibly upon the tablets of our memory.

To secure accuracy of names and dates, I have committed them to paper; but, anticipating the mental feast in reserve for us from the distinguished friends who have graced our meeting with their presence, I will be as brie as the process will admit.

In the year 1829 while a pupil in the basement story of the Belknap-street church, Hon. Harrison Gray Otis, then Mayor of the city, accompanied Hon. Samuel T. Armstrong to an examination of the colored school. It chanced that Charles A. Battiste, Nancy Woodson and myself were pronounced entitled to the highest reward of merit. In lieu of Franklin Medals, legitimately our due, Mr. Armstrong gave each an order on Deacon James Loring’s Bookstore for the Life of Benjamin Franklin. This is the copy I received! The white medal scholars were invited guests to the Faneuil Hall dinner. Having a boy’s curiosity to be spectator at the “feast of reason and the flow of soul,” I made good my court with one of the waiters, who allowed me to seem to serve others as the fee for serving myself, the physical being then with me subordinate. Mr. Armstrong improved a prudent moment in whispering to me, “You ought to be here with the other boys.” Of course, the same idea had more than once been mine, but his remark, while witnessing the honors awarded to white scholars, only augmented my sensitiveness all the more, by the intuitive inquiry which I eagerly desired to express—“If you think so, why have you not taken steps to bring it about?”

The impression made on my mind, by this day’s experience, deepened into a solemn vow that, God helping me, I would do my best to hasten the day when the color of the skin would be no barrier to equal school rights. While I would not in the smallest degree detract from the credit justly due the men for their conspicuous exertions in this reform, truth enjoins upon me the pleasing duty of acknowledging that to the women, and the children also, is the cause especially indebted for success.

In the dark hours of our struggle, when betrayed by traitors within and beset by foes without, while some men would become lukewarm and indifferent, despairing of victory; then did the women keep the flame alive, and as their hopes would weave bright visions for the future, their husbands and brothers would rally for a new attack upon the fortress of colorphobia. Yes, Sir, it was the mothers (God bless them!) of these little bright-eyed boys and girls, who, through every step of our progress, were executive and vigilant, even to that memorable Monday morning (September 3, 1855) the trial hour, when the colored children of Boston went up to occupy the long-promised land. It was these mothers who accompanied me to the various school-houses, to residences of teachers and committee-men, to see the laws of the Old Bay State applied in good faith.

An omniconsciousness of my own experience when a schoolboy—and how my heart would have leaped in the enjoyment then of equal school rights—has proved a strong incentive to my interest for your boys and girls; for, having none of my own, I took the liberty of adopting them all as my children. And the smiles of approbation with which so many of them have greeted me in their homes and the highways and byways of life have imparted to me a wealth of inspiration and encouragement not obtainable from any other source. He that makes glad the heart of a child receives in return whole volumes of benedictions and is richer far than if upon his brow were entwined a monarch’s diadem.

These mothers have also labored at home to instill into the minds of their children the necessity of striving to obtain, as also to appreciate, those rights—emulating that New England mother who was said to mingle instruction in her children’s bread and milk and put good morals into their apple pies! With commendable zeal, the boys and girls have endeavored to profit by those counsels.

On the morning preceding their advent to the public schools, I saw from my window a boy passing the exclusive Smith School, where he had been a pupil, and, raising his hands, he exultingly exclaimed to his companions, “Good bye forever, colored school! Tomorrow we are like other Boston boys!”

In my daily walks, I behold the companionship, in studies and healthful glee, of boys and girls of all colors and races in these temples of learning, so justly a theme of pride to every citizen—sights and sounds indeed to me chief among ten thousand, and altogether lovely.

And since the third of September to the present time, the sun, moon and stars are regular in their courses! No orb has proved so eccentric as to shoot madly from its sphere in consequence, and the State House on Beacon Hill, and old Faneuil Hall, remain as firm on their bases ever. This union of mothers and children with husbands and fathers has contributed vastly to the great result. They have been the allied forces, which conquered our Sebastopol.

To the colored boys and girls of Boston it may now in truth be said, “The lines have fallen to you in pleasant places.” Behold, you have a goodly heritage! May it stimulate you to heed the voice of Wisdom, as she sweetly offers the choicest treasures of her gathered stores:

With eager hand the glowing page to turn, To scan the earth and cleave the distant sky, And find the force that holds the planets in their spheres.

Do not waste your spring of youth in idle dalliance, but plant rich seeds to blossom in your manhood and bear fruit when you are old. The public schools of Boston are the gateways to the pursuits of honor and usefulness, and if rightly improved by you, the imagination almost wearies as future prospects dawn upon its vision; for

Hills peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps rise.

In response to your floral tribute, so pleasing and acceptable, allow me to say that I need it not as an evidence of your satisfaction with the rights obtained, or my participancy therein, for the pleasure of the service has abundantly rewarded me. Endeavor to retain the impressions made upon your memories by this meeting, for, after all, you children are the parties benefited. Your parents have labored to achieve this good for you, and to them you must ever render due honor. The three children of an Eastern lady were invited to furnish her with an expression of their love before she went on a long journey. One brought a marble tablet, with the inscription of her name; another presented her with a garland of flowers; the third entered her presence, and thus accosted her: “Mother, I have neither marble tablet nor fragrant nosegay, but I have a heart. Here your name is engraved; here your name is precious; and this heart, full of affection, will follow you wherever you travel, and remain with you wherever you repose.” I know of no more appropriate advice to boys and girls than to commend their imitation of that child’s example; and when a few short years shall have rolled away and all proscription shall have done its work in the land, may

You love at times to pause, and strew the way With the wild flowers that luxuriant pend From spring’s gay branches, that whene’rer you send Your Memory to retrace your pilgrimage, She by those flowers her winding course may bend, Back through each twilight and each weary stage, And with those early flowers wreathe the white brow of age.

I could cull from my chapter of experience and observation many an unkind and insulting remark uttered against the rights of colored children in Boston, by school-committee men, editors and others occupying responsible positions; but, as they can be reserved for future use to “point a moral” if not to “adorn a tale,” let us, in this hour of victory, be magnanimous enough to cover with the charity of our silence the names of all who have opposed us.

Madam, in accepting this elegant token from you hands, I am not vain enough to monopolize the honor and gratitude so eminently due to those I have mentioned and others who have promoted this great work. Let it be regarded as a joint offering to them all, to be held in trust by me only so long as I am faithful to the elevation of those with whom I am identified by complexion and condition—the cause of humanity. May we all Watch each other, that our hands may be diligent—our hours consecrated, each minute, indeed every second, in that movement upon our dial-plate indicating a chain of Human Brotherhood. The association of this evening will be main-spring henceforward—its recollections more fragrant than choice flowers—ever-enduring as time. Friends, go on!

“Oft as the memory of this hour returns, May friendship’s flame within your bosoms burn, And, hand in hand, improvement’s course pursue, Till scenes of earth have faded from your view; Then your glad spirits, freed from bonds of clay, Shall soar triumphant to the home of day— Where softer dews than Hermons’ give perfume To flowers sweeter than in Sharon bloom, Entrancing music breathe in airs divine, And toil no more the spirit’s flight confine; But ever onwards through its bright abode, Bask in the presence of its Maker, God.”