William Cooper Nell and Lydia Maria Child: Two Bostonians Who Helped Harriet Jacobs

A stop at the African Meeting house on Beacon Hill In Boston.

A stop at the African Meeting house on Beacon Hill In Boston.

Alongside and connecting at a few points with Boston’s more well-known Freedom Trail, the Black Heritage Trail begins at the Robert Gould Shaw/54th Massachusetts Memorial and winds back to the north part of Beacon Hill. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was the heart of the city’s African American community.

I spent a few days in Boston seeing these places, which I have read about for many years. On a walking tour when I peppered our National Park Service guide with questions, the African Meeting House, the center of many famous abolitionist meetings and speeches, was a highlight. Many of the places and people related to Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Jacobs lived in Massachusetts before and after the Civil War, never for long but in several significant stretches in her life. In 1843, she joined her brother in Boston when she feared her enslavers from North Carolina could recapture her in more accommodating New York. She returned several times to visit and, in the early 1870s, she ran a boarding house in Cambridge.

Her brother John preceded her to Boston. He had found a welcome in the Beacon Hill community, where he met, among many others, William Cooper Nell. Nell became a friend to all the Jacobs, once referring to John, Harriet, and her daughter Louisa as his “brother and sisterhood.”

William Cooper Nell

This photo shows a clearly determined William Cooper Nell.

This photo shows a clearly determined William Cooper Nell.

William Cooper Nell was born in 1808 and grew up on Beacon Hill. His father co-founded the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA) and was active in community affairs.

As a young boy, Nell won the city’s Benjamin Franklin prize, an annual award given to the city’s smartest (male) students, but was denied the chance to accept the honor at a public ceremony. But he found a way to make his presence known. A relative worked the event as a waiter (black service people okay) and Nell took his place. When a school official recognized him, the man said that he “should” be present as a guest. Right, Nell thought and wrote later, that’s what you think but you did nothing about it when it could have made a difference.

He fought for integration in public education, religion, and social circles. Although there was a place for black-led organizations such as the MGCA, especially when blacks were usually marginalized in interracial settings, Nell saw integration as a main goal.

Nell knew the importance, years before the current trend, to uncover “hidden figures” in history. In the 19th century, knowledge about the the role of African Americans in the Revolutionary War was already getting lost. He tracked down the veterans or their descendants and wrote Colored Patriots of the American Revolution in 1855.

Nell became friends with Harriet Jacobs (there is some sense that he courted her daughter as well) and encouraged her to write Incidents. To increase the chance of success, indeed a requirement from her eventual publisher, Jacobs needed a well-connected white woman to write a foreword and generally vouchsafe for her. Nell helped. An earlier attempt by other supporters to interest Harriet Beecher Stowe did not succeed. In 1859, Nell introduced her to Lydia Maria Child.

Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Child worked with harriet Jacobs on her manuscript.

Lydia Maria Child worked with harriet Jacobs on her manuscript.

Child lived for a time on Beacon Hill, and our walking tour stopped at her house. (Like most of the landmarks, a private residence but at least still standing.) She had a career rare for a married woman but necessary because her husband David was apparently a financial nimwit. She wrote a book called The Frugal Housewife (perhaps relating her own experience?), published a children’s magazine, and wrote “Over the River and Through the Woods,” still sung today.

As she became more active in abolitionism, however, her non-political work dried up. During the 1840s, however, she edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard.

Thus, she was a logical potential “front woman” for Harriet Jacobs’s book. She served as editor, wrote an introduction, and acted as an agent.

Child had ideas about how to organize the content and release it to the world. It’s hard to say whether she made the kinds of suggestions that a more experienced author would make to a new author, or whether she pulled rank/race. For example, according to several accounts, Jacobs’s original draft ended with a section on John Brown. Although Child herself was a strong Brown supporter (see below), she urged a focus on Harriet’s family ties instead, including her grandmother, to appeal to white Northern female readers. She took the copyright out in her name because Harriet chose to publish the book under the pseudonym Linda Brent. On the one hand, this sounds like appropriation—but she also put in writing that the book was Jacobs’s property and never claimed authorship. Child wrote that she had “abridged, and struck out superfluous words sometimes, but I don’t think I altered fifty words in the whole volume.”

In 1859 she publicly supported John Brown, imprisoned after his raid, and she appealed to Virginia Gov. Henry Wise for mercy for Brown. The letters were leaked in the press, and published in the New York Tribune. Child decided to seize the moment. Through the American Anti-Slavery Society, she published a pamphlet with the series of letters between her, Wise, and another of her critics, a Southern woman (and wife of a senator) names Mrs. Mason. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies—in fact, far more than Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl at the time.

Incidents, of course, has outlasted any of Child’s works (except maybe “Over the Rivers”). Since historian Jean Fagan Yellin authenticated Jacobs’s authorship and the book’s connections to real people and events, however, Incidents has gone through multiple versions and printings.

Surely, Boston’s William Cooper Nell and Lydia Maria Child helped bring this work to the public eye.

A Gossipy Tidbit

Since I try to find connections between the subject at hand and Julia Wilbur, this one is kind of fun. William Cooper Nell moved to Rochester to work with Frederick Douglass on the North Star newspaper. He became part of the anti-slavery circles there, in particular becoming friends with Amy and Isaac Post, with whom he lived. He didn’t last long in Rochester, but when he moved back to Boston, he corresponded with Amy as a dear friend.

In a letter in 1856, he warned Amy about….Julia Wilbur! It is not clear when she did to run afoul of him, but clearly she irritated him.

As context, Rochester’s two main anti-slavery organizations had different strategies and, for the most part, memberships. Wilbur tried to be active on both groups. According to Nell, not a good idea.

On April 12, 1856, Nell wrote Post a letter bringing her up to date on many of their common acquaintances. The letter includes the following (letter excerpted from William Cooper Nell: Selected Writings 1832-1874, edited by Dorothy Porter Wesley and Constance Porter Uzelac):

“Wendell Phillips [an abolitionist leader] told me of the grand time in Rochester…My own sentiment toward Miss Wilbur has been one of distrust—the position she occupies of close friendship with your enemies materially unfits her for confidence in Your Circle….she may not give any occasion for her friends to find fault but she certainly has a wide field for annoying both parties.”

Julia did not write of a particular incident that would incite Nell’s “distrust,” although her attempts to straddle both the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society put her in an uncomfortable position.

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