Colored Conventions Project Digital Records

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News Article

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Transcript

Identifier

1854.MA-12.17.BOST

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Boston, MA

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MEETING OF COLOURED CITIZENS OF BOSTON .

PRESENTATION TO MR. WILLIAM C. NELL FOR HIS EFFORTS IN BEHALF OF EQUAL SCHOOL RIGHTS.

[IN The Liberator of last week we find a full report of the proceedings of a large and intelligent meeting of the coloured citizens of Boston, held on the 17th ult., for the purpose of presenting a testimonial to Mr. WM. C. NELL for his disinterested and untiring exertions in procuring the opening of the public schools of the city to all the children and youth within its limits, irrespective of complexional differences. JOHN T. HILTON, a long-tried and faithful friend of the anti-slavery cause, presided. In the list of Vice-Presidents we find the names of Robert Morris, Esq., J. S. Rock, M.D., Robert Johnson and Lewis Hayden. Nestor P. Freeman and George P. Ruffin were the Secretaries. The President made an appropriate introductory speech, after which a coloured boy, Frederick Lewis, delivered an address of thanks to Mr. Nell, presenting to him at the close a beautiful boquet—the audience expressing their gratification by repeated cheers. Mrs. Georgiana O. Smith then presented to Mr. Nell an elegant gold watch, worth ($150 00), bearing the inscription—“ A Tribute to WILLIAM C. NELL, from the coloured citizens of Boston, for his untiring efforts in behalf of Equal School Rights, Dec . 17, 1855.” Mr. Nell, in reply, delivered the following address.]

SPEECH OF WM. C. NELL.

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 affectation 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 deeds, 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 brief as the circumstances 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 coloured 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 Dea. 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 honours awarded to the 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 colour of the skin would be no barrier to equal school rights. I need not tell you that it was several years before any movement could be made promising a favourable result. In the year 1840, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Francis Jackson, Henry W. Williams, and myself, signed a petition, asking the City Government to grant equal school rights. Of course, but little, if any, progress was made at the time. In the year 1846, another petition was forwarded from George Putnam and eighty-five others. In 1849, Jonas W. Clarke and 227 others renewed the appeal, which was urged through several years’ attendance with agitations and individual skirmishes not always confined to our white citizens, until, in May, 1854, George F. Williams, Esq., submitted an able report to the City Government, recommending equal rights and equal privileges to coloured children. His efforts, responded to by a few members of each branch, paved the way for that action in the succeeding Legislature which accomplished the long sought-for object. As a means to this end, petitions were circulated, and, though but to a limited extent, it resulted in 1,469 names being forwarded. Of this number, I had the honour of obtaining 311 in Boston, which was augmented by 87 through the exertions of our zealous friend Lewis Hayden. It will not be individious to mention two places in the Commonwealth whose earlier and successful struggles in the same reform prompted their ready and cheerful cooperation with us. Wesley Berry headed the one from Nantucket, and the name of Hon. Stephen C. Phillips, with the leading clergymen and officials, graced the other from Salem with 114 names—a success achieved by the joint labours of the wife of Charles Lenox Remond and Mrs. George Putnam, formerly of this city. John B. Bailey and Peter Randolph in Charlestown were faithful auxiliaries, and the exertions of white anti-slavery friends in East Bridgewater, Lexington, Bolton and Leominster were no less praiseworthy, some towns, including Lynn and Haverhill, sending 300 names and upwards.

These petitions were promptly responded to by the Legislature. In the House, the bill was ordered to a third reading with an affirmative shout, not more than half a dozen voting audibly in opposition. The Senate as readily coöperated, and the Governor placed his sign manual to the bill, April 28.

To the honour of that Legislature be it recorded, that equal school rights found there a host of strong and vigilant supporters; among them, Mr. Kimball, of Salem, and that trio, including the member from Essex, so like a Prince in defending Humanity's claim, that eloquent and Swift witness against those who would despoil us of our rights, and that other last mentioned now, but more prominent then than all, who was never Slack in fulfilling his promises, and whose efforts continued until they were crowned with brilliant success.

The City Government, inspired by the State's laudable example, with commendable haste reversed the action of their predecessors, and acceded to the proposition suggested by one influential member, who remarked that “the coloured people had in effect abolished the school themselves, and it would be absurd in refusing to pass the order”; and the vote was sustained by 38 Yeas to 6 Nays; thus confirming that saying of a wise man, “There are no limits to the power of an intelligent and determined people.” Fortunately, the Bishop who superintended at the city educational altar proffered his willing heart and hand to secure to our children what the letter and spirit of the law guaranteed.

D'Aubigné, in his History of the Reformation, says, “Opinions make their progress like the waters that trickle behind our rocks, and loosen them from the mountains in which they rest; suddenly the operation is revealed, and a single day suffices to lay bare the work of years, if not of centuries.” How beautifully this truth has been illustrated in the reform we this evening meet to celebrate! an accumulation of words and deeds dotting its whole history to its culmination.

The two extremes of opinion on the Anti-Slavery question have met in this discussion. Some have expressed opinions legal, and otherwise favourable to the right, who else had no affinity with the anti-slavery cause. We have profited by both.

Hon Richard Fletcher, Hon. Charles H. Warren, John A. Bolles, Esq., Hon. Stephen C. Phillips, Edmund Quincy, T. W. Higginson, Rev. Daniel Foster, Rev. E. A. Stockman, Hon H. Wilson, Hon. C. T. Russell, acted in unison in promoting this desirable object.

Hon. G. S. Hilliard and Rev. John T. Sargent, on one occasion, were the only two in the School Board to vote in our favour; and Mr. Hillard, on several occasions since, when his legal duties required otherwise, has volunteered his acquiescence in our appeal.

Benjamin F. Roberts, who, in 1849, instituted a suit against the city for excluding his child from the public schools, so nobly defended by Hon. Charles Sumner, whose argument, though not then influencing the Supreme Bench, had a most potent bearing on the members of the Legislature which granted our rights. Associated with him in this case was Robert Morris, Esq., whose very presence as a coloured member of the Massachusetts Bar was a living protest against all exclusive coloured institutions.

The brothers Francis and Edmund Jackson, and those other brothers, Henry I. and William I. Bowditch, each pair like Dickens's brothers Cheeryble, were specially active, rivalling each other in these kind offices.

John A. Andrews, Esq., with a keen eye to the emergency, amended the legislative bill, making assurance doubly sure.

Wendell Phillips, Esq., who, from the moment of signing the first petition with Wm. Lloyd Garrison, like him has always been ready, in and out of season, with his rich gifts of voice and pen, before legislative and other committees, to advocate our claims; Rev. Theodore Parker, who, side by side with Wendell Phillips in those memorable struggles to rescue Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns from the hell of American slavery, so, side by side were their names appended to the Boston petition for equal school rights, and, but for an imperative engagement, they would have been side by side here this evening to receive our unfeigned thanks for their abundant labours in this cause.

William J. Watkins also buckled on his armour, and did most efficient service; and you, Sir, our worthy Chairman, your white plume, like that of Henry IV. at the battle of Navarre, was always seen at that point where the blows fell thick and fast in our defence. I am aware how notorious it is that the good man shrinks from the open proclamation to his face of his really good qualities. But while the friends assembled will not doubt my veracity in these statements, they and those who have helped rear for us and our children the Temple of Equality, will indulge me on this special occasion, in view of the past, present and future history of school rights. Let us not forget to duly honour those who, by their exertions, have secured to us these blessings.

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 colourphobia. 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 coloured 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 omnipresent consciousness of my own experience when a school-boy, 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 by-ways 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 laboured at home to instil into the minds of their children the necessity of striving to obtain, as also to appreciate, these 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 endeavoured to profit by these 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, coloured school! To-morrow 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 colours 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 3d 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 upon their bases as 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 coloured 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 greet 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 honour and usefulness; and if

rightly improved by you, the imagination almost wearies as future prospects dawn upon its vision; for,


“Hills over hills, and Alps on Alps arise.”

In response to your floral tribute, so pleasing and acceptable, allow me to say, that I needed 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. Endeavour to retain the impressions made upon your memories by this meeting, for, after all, you children are the parties benefitted. Your parents have laboured to achieve this good for you, and to them you must ever render due honour. 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 will 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'er 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 wreath 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 coloured 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 your hands, I am not vain enough to monopolize the honour 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 associations of this evening will be my 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 Hermon's 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.”

Mr. Nell's address was frequently interrupted by applause, especially at the mention of those anti-slavery friends who had given their aid to the cause.

[CHARLES W. SLACK, Esq., made an excellent speech, from which can only give an extract, as follows:]

The idea had been rigidly entertained by a large portion of the community that there was something repulsive in having the little children of colour sit side by side with those of white parents in the public schools; but when the reform was accomplished—when, on the first Monday of September last, these bright little ones about us went up, with equal privileges and equal freedom, to common schools, although, for a moment, there was a slight buzz of astonishment at the unusual spectacle, the next day it had all passed away, and they were met us gladly by teachers and pupils as any other children. He had just been told by one of the School Committee present on the occasion [Henry Upham, Esq.], that the teachers in those schools where the coloured children are the more numerous report that they come as neatly dressed, and are as gifted in application and understanding, as the children of parents who have had all the advantages which wealth, position and culture could give! (Applause.)

Well, this prejudice against coloured children in the public schools has been driven out of sight—thank God for that! (Cheers.) It was another of the triumphs which had marked the struggle for the elevation of the coloured race in this Commonwealth First came the abrogation of the laws against intermarriage—not that many desired that privilege, but they could not consent that a mark of inequality should be placed upon either race, white or black; then the “Jim Crow” car was abolished, and the privilege of travel in every public conveyance fully maintained; then the places of amusement were thrown open to the coloured race equally with the white; then followed, in Boston, the abolition of the “negro pew” in the City Directory, and the record of all citizens alike, without distinction of colour or race; and now, to crown the whole, we have established the right of the humblest child in the community to all the benefits of our common-school education, equally with the offspring of the proudest citizen in the Commonwealth.

[WENDHLL PHILLIPS also delivered an address, from which we extract the following:]

Mr. Phillips (who was received with loud cheers) said he rejoiced very heartily in the occasion that called them together. It was one of those rare days in the history of a hard struggle, when there was something palpable to rejoice at. Men were always asking—What has the anti-slavery agitation done? He was glad they had this answer to make now—It had opened the schools! For he supposed every one would be willing to allow that without agitation of the public mind, on the general question, the doors of the schools would never have been opened. When he first took hold of this enterprise, he believed the coloured people would never obtain equality in the Senate House until they got it on the school-bench; and when they got it on the school-bench, if they improved their privileges, they might clutch what they would from the community. But two things rule in this country— brains and money (laughter); the brains get the money, too, therefore they are the better. The common schools gave them the brains, now let the coloured people get the money; and then they need not ask the white race to let them be equal, for when the white man found the man of colour passing him in the race, he would whisper—“By the-by, that fellow is fully my equal” (applause).

The best thing learned by these struggles is, how to prepare for another. They were in for the war. He should never think Massachusetts a State fit to live in until he saw one man, at least, as black as the ace of spades, a graduate of Harvard College (cheers).

He had no notion of such an empire as ours affected to be, confined to one race—it is too narrow. He did not go for annexing territory only, but for annexing hearts— all sorts of races, all sorts of customs. Let a man burn the dead body of his wife, if she desires it! When they had high schools and colleges to which all classes and colours were admitted on equal terms, then he should think Massachusetts was indeed the noblest representative of the principles that planted her.

They were greatly indebted to the young man whom they had met to honour. These causes are apt to sink, when everybody's business is nobody's business. They were none of them willing to give the cheerless, disheartening toil, the unremitting industry, the hope against hope, which he has given. If he had not been the nucleus, there would have been no cause; if he had not gone up to the Legislature when it seemed mere impertinence to go there, nobody would have gone. He (Mr. P.) loved to have these hours, when they could turn away from the battle, to do honour to the self-devotion, to the life-long energy and true-heartedness of such a man. They knew that while many who started with him had been turned aside by professional emolument, or private gain, he had been true to his race, true to his idea. Emerson had said—“A Tory is a Democrat gone to seed” (laughter). Cold-hearted age is the natural successor of enthusiastic youth. We see it so often, we expect it. When he saw an old man with the lava of his young enthusiasm just as hot, his confidence in the right just as loyal, his determination to stereotype honest pulses into statutes just as fixed, as at nineteen, he was the man whom he would point the young to imitate, and the old to try to go back and be like (loud cheers). We say sometimes distrustfully, “This man has not attended to his own interest; he did not know his own business; he would have been a richer man if he had been more stingy.” So he would! It was our interests he was attending to; it was the foundation of better times he was laying. It was not the want of sense, it was a higher sense. Their friend Nell had invested his capital in the children of his fellow-citizens, in the ideas which will prevail hereafter; and when he goes down to the grave, those whom he has benefitted will remember and honour him, as one who trusted in the honesty of Massachusetts, and who waited to prove she could be just.

There was another reason, Mr. Phillips said, why he rejoiced in this triumph. Some seven years ago he told the Legislature, when he asked them to go for Disunion, that they must not be tired nor frightened, for the Abolitionists would come year after year and ask it, and we should gain it in the end (loud cheers). And his reason was, that they had gained all they had ever asked for, except Disunion and equal schools. He should only have to make one exception now. It is a fate! The moment a coloured man and an Abolitionist sign a petition, it is fated—it will be granted in the end. They might just as well say—these proud legislators, up above the reach of the tide—with the coon—“Is this Captain John Scott? for if it is, I will come down”—because they will have to come down in the end (laughter and applause).

[Mr. GARRISON made a brief address, in which he bore the strongest testimony to the value and importance of Mr. Nell's labours in behalf of Equal School Rights, and commended the chairman for his fidelity to the anti-slavery cause. CHARLES LENOX REMOND made the concluding address. We give an extract:]

But while they had come up there to congratulate each other on the victory they had achieved, they should be careful to make it understood that they were not yet satisfied with the state of things in Massachusetts. While he admitted, with Mr. Phillips, that this victory afforded a basis for further efforts, he should continue to feel uneasy in his native State while there was a single act of proscription on the part of the white people against the coloured people. They must bear in mind that they were yet excluded from the jury box; and he hoped that the coloured people of Boston and of the State would commence a new agitation, and not allow it to cease until coloured men are seated in the jury box—at least, on every occasion when a coloured man is to be tried (prolonged cheering). In England, when a foreigner was put on trial in a court of justice, one half of the jury were composed of foreigners. They ought to insist here that when a coloured man was tried, one half of the jury should also be coloured.

Mr. R. said he hoped that when they left that house they would go away with a firm resolution that wherever there was a difficult duty to be performed in the anti-slavery cause, they would assist in its performance, as well as rejoice in the hour of triumph. And when they should do this, they would strengthen the hands and hearts of their white friends. He had no sympathy with the plea that was now made by some, that the coloured people should take their cause into their own hands. He held that the anti-slavery cause was as much the cause of the white man as of the coloured man, for the moment a white man became thoroughly identified with the cause, he was subjected to the same odium and the same insults as the coloured man. He trusted he should live to see the day when the last shackle should fall from the last slave in this country; but he should not see it until greater sacrifices were made by the coloured people—until they should learn to value that which was valuable. A great work was yet before them; and they should resolve to do their duty and if the white man attempted to brow-beat them, let them stand up before him; and if he was determined to drive rough-shod over them and their rights, let them, like the Athenian youth, throw themselves under the wheels of his chariot, resolved rather to die in the spirit of freedom that to live slaves (loud applause).

Some twenty years’ experience in the anti-slavery cause had taught him one thing—to try and be satisfied with his native country, believing that truth, right and liberty will yet prevail. It would be a burning shame, after what the coloured people had suffered in this country, if they should turn their backs upon it. They ought rather to remain here, to demand their rights, and testify to all the world that, with the recognition of those rights, they dare do all that other men dare do. There was a time when he took a pride in the patriotism of coloured men in the early history of this country; but he thought now they made a mistake in fighting for the country at that time, and he though that, if there should be a war now, it would be a mistake for the coloured people to take part in it it, except on condition that all their rights were granted to them.

[The morning after the meeting, Mr. Nell received from Mrs. H. B. STOWE an elegant copy of the illustrated edition of “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” with the following note:]

“Mrs. Stowe desires to present to Mr. Nell this small addition to the tribute of last evening, regretting that an unfortunate accident prevented its being presented on that occasion.

“May those benefits of education which Mr. Nell has helped to secure for his people bring forth an abundannt harvest.

“Boston, December 18, 1855.”

Convention Minutes Item Type Metadata

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State

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South

Citation

State Council of Colored People Of Massachusetts (1854 : Boston, MA), “[Untitled],” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, accessed May 24, 2020, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/1079.