"ONE OF THE FIRST PIECES OF HISTORICAL WRITING DEVOTED TO THE EXPERIENCES OF AFRICAN AMERICANS": RARE FIRST EDITION OF PIONEERING BLACK HISTORIAN WILLIAM C. NELL'S SERVICES OF COLORED AMERICANS, 1851
(AMERICAN REVOLUTION) NELL, William C. Services of Colored Americans, In the Wars of 1776 and 1812. Boston: Prentiss & Sawyer, 1851. Slim octavo, disbound; pp.(1-3), 4, (5), 6-24. $3800.
First edition of Nell's groundbreaking history of African American service and sacrifice in the Revolution, issued in fury over the Fugitive Slave Act and defying America's persistent "selective inattention" to Black accomplishments—one of the "most useful and important histories of African Americans written in the Civil War era"—forcing "history to do right by Revolutionary War Blacks."
Black rebellion in America, fortified by the "literature of resistance," was fundamentally substantiated by "works recovering the martial history of Black Men" (Sinha, Slave's Cause, 452). Chief among these was Nell's Services of Colored Americans, published amidst fury over the Fugitive Slave Act. "One of the first pieces of historical writing devoted to the experiences of African Americans," Services speaks to a conviction that whites' "selective inattention" to Black accomplishments could no longer be ignored. To that end, "the task of forcing history to do right by Revolutionary War Blacks was undertaken by Nell" (Quarles, Black History's Antebellum Origins, 89-90, 111). This first edition of Services, issued in 1851, notably begins with his account of the same year's petition to the Massachusetts legislature, seeking funds for "a monument to the memory of Crispus Attucks, the first martyr in the Boston Massacre."
"Nell's historical writings have remained the most important early texts in African American historiography" (Oxford Companion to African American Literature, 533). Born in Boston, as a young student, Nell "had been excluded from the dinner given… to laud winners of academic honors in the Boston schools. While the white students received medals from the mayor, Nell's gift—ironically, a copy of Life of Benjamin Franklin—was delivered to him at his segregated classroom at the Belknap Street Church. Nell went on to become one of the first writers to explore Black history and culture" (Mayer, All on Fire, 352). With passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and following his decades-long campaign to integrate Boston public schools, Nell published Services and the subsequent Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). "The careful scholarship and innovative use of oral sources in his works, which were far broader than their titles suggest, made them the most useful and important histories of African Americans written in the Civil War era" (ANB).
In addition to Nell's coverage of Crispus Attucks, Services documents the actions of African Americans across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina and Louisiana. In his section on Pennsylvania, Nell writes of perilous days in the American Revolution when the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia called on "three of the principal Colored citizens, namely, James Forten, Bishop Allen and Absalom Jones," to help defend the city. "Accordingly 2500 Colored men assembled in the State House yard, and from thence marched to Gray's ferry." Nell's pioneering "linkage of history and politics reached a critical point in 1857," when the Dred Scott decision asserted African Americans were not citizens. At that point he also established "annual commemorations of Attucks' martyrdom." Crispus Attucks' name and image "eventually appeared prominently on the large collective monument placed on Boston Common in 1888, but Nell's name gradually faded from general memory. Not until 1989 did the community place a marker on his grave in Boston's Forest Hills Cemetery" (Greenspan, William Wells Brown, 473). First edition: without self-wrappers often lacking. Blockson 3978. LCP Afro-Americana 7025 (incorrectly calling for 40 pp). Small library inkstamps to title page, first text page.
A fine copy.