David Walker’s birth date has been varyingly estimated as September 25 in 1795, 1796, or 1797 in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was born to a slave father and a ‘‘free black’’ mother. Under the prevailing law, having been born to a ‘‘free black’’ mother, David Walker was born free. Despite his free status, accounts of his early years indicate a difficult existence as was the norm for African Americans during that time period. Eventually, Walker became an early member of the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church—as a free black person, Walker was disallowed from worshipping in slave churches.
In 1826, after traveling throughout the country and witnessing the brutality of slavery, Walker settled in Boston, Massachusetts, and opened a used clothing store. This enterprise would play a significant role during his abolitionist efforts. Further securing his place within the African-American elite in Boston, in 1826, Walker married Eliza Butler—a member of a prominent local family.
David Walker began to publicly denounce southern slavery and northern racism. As such, he became the Boston agent for and frequently contributed to the nation’s first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal (a weekly paper published in New York City). He wrote about the South as follows:
If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long. As true as God reigns, I will be avenged for the sorrows which my people have suffered. This is not the place for me—no, no I must leave this part of the country.... Go I must.
By 1828, Walker had become the best-known antislavery advocate in Boston.
During the fall of 1829, Walker published the first edition of his Appeal, in Four Articles; Together With a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (‘‘Appeal’’).
The Appeal called for self-determination, independence, and slave revolt: [T]hey want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us ... [T]herefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed ... and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.
Additionally, in a break from commonly held abolitionist views, Walker did not support the colonization of free African Americans to Africa or the Caribbean. Frederick Douglas stated that the Appeal ‘‘startled the land like a trump of coming justice.’’
To disseminate the Appeal, Walker gained the assistance of antislavery sailors traveling to the South— copies of the document would be sown into clothes purchased through his clothing store and later distributed to slaves, ‘‘free Blacks,’’ and antislavery sympathizers in southern localities.
While African Americans—both slave and free— clamored to gain access to the document, slave owners recoiled from it. The pamphlet was proclaimed subversive. As such, the Georgia and Louisiana legislatures passed laws against the circulation of the Appeal, and violation punishable by imprisonment or death. To similar ends, the Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina legislatures made it a crime to teach a slave to read. In 1829, when copies of the Appeal first began to surface within the state, the Georgia state legislature met in secret and passed a bill making it a capital offense to circulate materials that might incite slaves to riot. The Georgia legislature offered a ‘‘reward’’ for the capture of David Walker—$10,000 alive, and $1,000 dead. In addition, a group of wealthy southerners offered a $3,000 bounty for the severed head of David Walker.
The third edition of the Appeal was published in 1830. A scant two months later, David Walker was found dead on the doorstep of his clothing establishment. While folklore attributed his death to poisoning, some modern historians speculate the cause of death was tuberculosis.
Despite David Walker’s Appeal being alternatively decried as ‘‘for a brief and terrifying moment..., the most notorious document in America’’ and being praised as ‘‘present[ing] the first sustained critique of slavery and racism in the United States by an African person ... [and] crystalliz[ing] the universal principles against slavery’’ along with ‘‘the most significant Black anti-slavery document in the antebellum period[,]’’ there are scant few references to Walker and his work. Despite David Walker’s influence on abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and perhaps Nat Turner; and twentieth-century activists Malcolm X, and even Martin Luther King, Jr., unfortunately and notably, many of the major tomes on slavery fail to reference David Walker and his Appeal at all.
CYNTHIA G. HAWKINS-LEO´ N
References and Further Reading