Nov 14 2012
David Walker (September 27, 1796 – June 28, 1830) was an outspoken African American activist who demanded the immediate end of slavery. In 1829, while living in Boston, Massachusetts, he published Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, a call to awaken other African Americans to the power of black unity.
Walker has generally not been recognized in primary and secondary textbooks for his contribution to ending chattel slavery in the United States, yet many historians and liberation theologians cite Walker’s Appeal as an influential political and social document of the 19th century. They credit Walker for exerting a radicalizing influence on the abolitionist movements of his day and beyond. He has inspired many generations of black leaders and activists of all backgrounds.
David Walker was born to a free mother and an enslaved father in Wilmington, North Carolina. As a young adult he moved to Charleston, a mecca for upwardly mobile free blacks. There he was affiliated with a strong African Methodist Episcopal Church community of activists. He visited, and likely then lived in, Philadelphia, a shipbuilding center, and, importantly, the home of a large free black community.
Move to Boston and Subsequent Career
Shaped by these experiences, Walker settled in Boston around 1825, as the seaport’s black community was expanding. He immediately became active within the black community on the west side of Beacon Hill.
Walker operated a used clothing store near the wharves in the North End and took part in a variety of civic associations. He was involved with Prince Hall Freemasonry, an organization formed in the 1780s that stood up the against discriminatory treatment of blacks, a founder of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which opposed colonization, and a member of Rev. Samuel Snowden’s Methodist church. Additionally, Walker both served as a Boston agent and a writer for New York’s short-lived but influential Freedom’s Journal, the first abolitionist newspaper published by blacks in the United States. Walker also joined with those who repeatedly petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for equal rights for all its residents and often spoke publicly against slavery and racism.
Although hardly free from discrimination from whites, black families in Boston experienced relatively benign conditions in the 1820s compared to other parts of the country. The state had unofficially ended slavery in a series of court cases at the end of the 18th century and the city was cosmopolitan, with a variety of trades and jobs open to blacks. Boston was a center, moreover, of abolitionist activity among many blacks and whites and the level of black competency and activism in Boston was particularly high. As historian Peter Hinks documents: “The growth of black enclaves in various cities and towns was inseparable from the development of an educated and socially involved local black leadership.”
The black community in Boston was friendly to newcomers and transients, helping support fugitive slaves, including those who wanted to move on to Canada, as well as free blacks from other areas. Boston’s black community, centered around the African Meeting House on the north slope of Beacon Hill, demanded full citizenship rights and embraced black cosmopolitanism, which embodied remnants of African traditions, the common experiences of slavery, and survivors’ advocacy in a hostile, discriminatory world.
Just five years after he arrived in Boston, Walker died suddenly in the summer of 1830. Though rumors subsequently suggested that he was murdered, most historians believe Walker died a natural death from tuberculosis, as listed in Boston city records. The disease was prevalent and had claimed Walker’s only daughter the week before. Walker was buried in a South Boston cemetery for blacks. His probable grave site remains unmarked.
Walker’s Appeal (1829)
Walker intentionally structured his Appeal in the style of the United States Constitution. For Walker, black Americans were more American than white Americans, having forged the country with their blood and toil. Walker addressed his audience of Americans as two entities—one black and one white—and placed the enslavement of Africans in the United States in historical context. He argued that American slavery, in its cruelty and its denial of the basic humanity of those enslaved, eclipsed the brutality of all other slave regimes.
As in his public speeches, Walker, in his Appeal, challenged the racism of the age. He specifically targeted groups like the American Colonization Society, which sought to deport all free and freed Blacks from the United States, and the public assertions of black inferiority by Thomas Jefferson, who died three years before the publication of Walker’s pamphlet. Walker recognized that racist ideology, articulated and encouraged by a man of Jefferson’s stature, posed a powerful long-term threat to the black community and the promise of real democracy. As he explained, “I say, that unless we refute Mr. Jefferson’s arguments respecting us, we will only establish them.”
Walker argued that blacks had to assume responsibility not only for themselves but for one other. Those who were educated were urged to read the pamphlet to those who could not.
Distribution of the Appeal
Two editions of the pamphlet were published within a year. Of the first edition, which was published in 1829, only eleven copies are known to survive; one was bought in 2011 for the University of Virginia. Walker distributed his pamphlet through various black communication networks along the Atlantic coast, which included free and enslaved black civil rights activists, laborers, black church and revivalist networks, contacts with free black benevolent societies, and maroon communities.
By 1830, the pamphlet was everywhere. In an attempt to prevent the circulation of the Appeal, Savannah, Georgia instituted a ban on the disembarkation of black seamen. Yet the document continued to circulate. Various government bodies labeled it seditious and newspapers in the South like the Richmond Enquirer railed against Walker’s “monstrous slander” of the region. The outrage over the Appeal even led Georgia to announce an award of $10,000 to anybody who could hand over Walker alive, and $1,000 to anyone who would murder him.
“There is great work for you to do… You have to prove to the Americans and the world that we are MEN, and not brutes, as we have been represented, and by millions treated. Remember, to let the aim of your labours among your brethren, and particularly the youths, be the dissemination of education and religion.”
— Walker, The Appeal, p 32
The Immediate Significance of the Appeal
The Appeal inspired blacks and whites in the burgeoning abolitionist movement. Three months after Walker died, for instance, the Boston Evening Transcript noted that blacks regarded the Appeal “as if it were a star in the east guiding them to freedom and emancipation.” Whites, meanwhile, were radicalized by reading Walker’s pamphlet. William Lloyd Garrison, one of the most influential American abolitionists, began publishing The Liberator in January 1831 shortly after the appearance of the Appeal. Early weekly editions of Garrison’s newspaper focused on the Appeal. Garrison, who believed slaveowners would be punished by God, rejected the violence Walker advocated but nevertheless recognized that slaveowners were courting disaster by refusing to free their slaves. “Every sentence that they write–every word that they speak–every resistance that they make, against foreign oppression, is a call upon their slaves to destroy them,” Garrison wrote.
Together, moreover, the publication of Walker’s pamphlet and the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831, struck fear into the hearts of slaveowners. Though there is no evidence to suggest that the Appeal informed or inspired Turner, the two events, which occurred just two years apart, intensified white anxiety in the South about the potential for future insurrections and inaugurated the adoption of laws designed to strip free blacks of what little rights they enjoyed.
Walker, The Public Intellectual
Walker was influenced by the strategies of resistance forged by individual rebels, maroon communities of runaway slaves, independent black church movement leaders, and more.
As a fervent Protestant, he was well-used to ‘making a way out of no-way’. His reading of the Bible led to his judgment that no previous system of slavery in history was as oppressive as that experienced in America.
In the United States dark skin was deemed by whites a signal of inferiority and non-humanity. He challenged critics to show him “a page of history, either sacred or profane, on which a verse can be found, which maintains that the Egyptians heaped the insupportable insult upon the children of Israel, by telling them that they were not of the human family.”
Walker advocated self-help strategies. As historian Peter Hinks has made clear, Walker believed that the “key to the uplift of the race was a zealous commitment to the tenets of individual moral improvement: education, temperance, protestant religious practice, regular work habits, and self-regulation.”
Walker asserted that whites did not deserve adulation for their willingness to free some slaves. As historian Peter Hinks has explained, Walker argued that “[w]hites gave nothing to blacks upon manumission except the right to exercise the liberty they had immorally prevented them from so doing in the past. They were not giving blacks a gift but rather returning what they had stolen from them and God. To pay respect to whites as the source of freedom was thus to blaspheme God by denying that he was the source of all virtues and the only one with whom one was justified in having a relationship of obligation and debt.”
Although individuals and groups had emerged with differing degrees of commitment to equal rights for black men and women by the 1820s and 30s, no national anti-slavery movement existed when the Appeal was published. As historian Herbert Aptheker writes, “[t]o be an Abolitionist was not for the faint-hearted. The slaveholders represented for the first half of the nineteenth century the most closely knit and most important single economic unit in the nation, their millions of bondsmen and millions of acres of land comprising an investment of billions of dollars. This economic might had its counterpart in political power, given its possessors dominance within the nation and predominance within the South.” Walker’s militancy played a pivotal role in solidifying a white abolitionist movement that, in the main, found Walker too strident in his evangelical approach, yet prescient in his attack on chattel slavery.
The Appeal heightens our understanding of the pernicious effects of both slavery and the subservience of and discrimination against free blacks, who threatened the existing racial order by confounding the notion that to be black was to be enslaved. Those outside of slavery were said to need special regulation “because they could not be relied on to regulate themselves and because they might overstep the boundaries society had placed around them.”
David Walker has often been regarded as an abolitionist with Black Nationalist views, in large measure because Walker envisioned a future for black Americans that included self-rule. As he wrote in the Appeal, “Our sufferings will come to an end, in spite of all the Americans this side of eternity. Then we will want all the learning and talents, and perhaps more, to govern ourselves.”
Scholars have often remarked upon the connection between Walker’s Appeal and black nationalism. In his 1972 study of The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism, historian Sterling Stuckey suggested that Walker’s Appeal “would become an ideological foundation…for Black Nationalist theory.” Though some have subsequently suggested that Stuckey overstated the extent to which Walker contributed to the creation of a black nation, Thabiti Asukile, in a 1999 article on “The All-Embracing Black Nationalist Theories of David Walker’s Appeal”, defended Stuckey’s interpretation. “Though scholars may continue to debate this,” Asukile writes, “it would seem hard to disprove that the later advocates of black nationalism in America, who advocated a separate nation-state based on geographical boundaries during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, would not have been able to trace certain ideological concepts to Walker’s writings. Stuckey’s interpretation of the Appeal as a theoretical black nationalist document is a polemical crux for some scholars who aver that David Walker desired to live in a multicultural America. Those who share this view must consider that Stuckey does not limit his discourse on the Appeal to a black nationalism narrowly defined, but rather to a range of sentiments and concerns. Stuckey’s concept of a black nationalist theory rooted in African slave folklore in America is an original and pioneering one, and his intellectual insights are valuable to a progressive rewriting of African American history and culture.”
In “‘Let no man of us budge one step’: David Walker and the Rhetoric African American Emplacement”, literary scholar Chris Apap draws attention to a passage of the Appeal in which Walker encourages blacks to “[n]ever make an attempt to gain freedom or natural right, from under our cruel oppressors and murderers, until you see your ways clear; when that hour arrives and you move, be not afraid or dismayed.” Here it seems Walker both warns black citizens of the United States to wait until they feel the time is right for revolt and reassures them that force is necessary. Walker goes on to say that Jesus Christ will surely go before the oppressed who are trying to overthrow the slave owners. Some scholars have interpreted Walker’s words as a play on the Biblical injunction to “be not afraid or dismayed.” As Apap points out, “‘be not afraid or dismayed’ is a direct quote from 2 Chronicles 20.15, where the Israelites are told to ‘be not afraid or dismayed’ because God would fight the battle for them and save them from their enemies without their having to lift a finger.” All the Israelites are expected to do is pray. Walker however says, “you move”; “when that hour arrives and you move, be not afraid or dismayed.” Apap insists that because Walker says, “you move”, “Walker’s God is more the lord of hosts of the Old Testament than the forgiving God of the New Testament whose followers turn the other cheek.” The Old Testament says that war is initiated and led by God. This can be seen in such passages such as Exodus 17:16, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” and Numbers 31:3, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites and to carry out the LORD’s vengeance on them.”
“This country is as much ours as it is the whites, whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by.”
— Walker, Article IV, p. 58
For the progress of the race: The lasting influence of Walker’s Appeal
The spirit of David Walker lives on. Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, a number of liberation theologians and many others have respectfully followed in David Walker’s footsteps. Echoes of Walker’s Appeal can be heard most vividly, for example, in Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.”
Historian Herbert Aptheker has noted that “Walker’s Appeal is the first sustained written assault upon slavery and racism to come from a black man in the United States. This was the main source of its overwhelming power in its own time; this is the source of the great relevance and enormous impact that remain in it, deep as we are in the twentieth century.
Never before or since was there a more passionate denunciation of the hypocrisy of the nation as a whole – democratic and fraternal and equalitarian and all the other words. And Walker does this not as one who hates the country but rather as one who hates the institutions which disfigure it and make it a hissing in the world.”
- Apap, Chris. “’Let no man of us budge one step’: David Walker and the Rhetoric African American Emplacement.” Early American Literature 46.2: 319-350. PDF file.
- Aptheker, Herbert. 1965. “One Continual Cry”: David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829-1830): Its Setting and Its Meaning. Humanities Press.
- Asukile, Thabiti. “The All-Embracing Black Nationalist Theories of David Walker’s Appeal.” The Black Scholar 29.4 (1999): 16-24. PDF file.
- Eaton, Clement. 1936. “A Dangerous Pamphlet in the Old South,” Journal of Southern History, 2, pp. 512–534.
- Hahn, Steven. 2009. Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom. Harvard University Press.
- Harding, Vincent. 1981, There Is A River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. Vintage Books
- Hinks, Peter P. 1997. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. Pennsylvania State University Press
- ____, Ed. 2000. David Walker’s Appeal To The Coloured Citizens of The World. Pennsylvania State University Press.
- Horne, Gerald. 1988. Thinking and Rethinking U.S. History, Council on Interracial Books for Children.
- Horton James Oliver; Horton, Lois E. 1997. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. Oxford University Press.
- ____ Eds. 2006. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American History. The New Press.
- Johnson, Charles; Smith, Patricia; WGBH Series Research Team. 1998. Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery. Harcourt, Brace and Company
- Mayer, Henry. 1998. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and The Abolition of Slavery. St. Martin’s Press.
- Mitchell, Verner. 2002. “David Walker, African Rights, and Liberty,” in Trotman, C. James, Ed., Multiculturalism: Roots and Reality. Indiana University Press.
- Sesay, Chernoh Momodu. 2006. Freemasons of Color: Prince Hall, Revolutionary Black Boston, and the Origins of Black Freemasonry, 1770—1807. Dissertation, Northwestern University.
- Walker, David. 1829. Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles. D. Walker.
- Zinn, Howard, 2003. A People’s History of the American States: 1492 to the Present. Harper Collins Publishers.
- List of African-American abolitionists