One of the most forceful voices in the abolitionist movement came from the words of a free man named David Walker.
While he may be overshadowed by the likes of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, Walker left his mark on the push for ending slavery and pulled no punches in his rebuke of the white enslavers who used paternalistic verbiage in excusing their behavior.
Walker's life was cut short and I think this, in part, has led to his faded memory when reviewing the abolitionist movement. Join me this week as I review the life of David Walker and his masterful work known simply as his Appeal.
Biography.com Editors. “David Walker Biography.” Biography.com. September 24, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2022. (LINK)
“Colonization.” The African-American Mosaic. The Library of Congress. Accessed January 5, 2022. (LINK)
“David Walker: Boston’s Fiery Anti-Slavery Writer.” Archives & Records Management. Boston.gov. February 12, 2020. (LINK)
Hinks, Peter.To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance.United States: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.
Robinson, Morgan. “The American Colonization Society.” The White House Historical Association. June 22, 2020. Accessed January 5, 2022. (LINK)
Various Articles, The David Walker Memorial Project. (LINK)
Walker, David.Walker’s Appeal. United States: Applewood Books, 2008. (LINK)
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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
In the growing call for slavery’s abolition, one man perhaps stood out most amongst his community in Boston, Massachusetts. And before you think of the name Frederick Douglass, let me stop you.
Have you ever heard of David Walker? A man who died an untimely, and some say suspicious, death, Walker is known mostly for his militant appeal, a short four article pamphlet wherein he lays down his arguments against slavery.
Published originally in 1829, Walker’s manifesto was jaw dropping for the time - honestly, my jaw dropped reading it in 2022. He unapologetically took white americans - and white christian americans specifically, to task for their support of the institution of slavery.
Details of his life are scarce, but he was part of an overarching movement gaining steam within the United States, abolition. As such, I wanted to spend an episode reviewing his life and the book that some argue got him killed.
But just who was David Walker? And what exactly did his manifesto say?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
David Walker, born a free man around either 1785 or 1797, was a staunch abolitionist and devoutly religious. Born in Wilmington, North Carolina to a free mother and an enslaved father, Walker found himself surrounded by the excessive violence and degradation found in a daily slave life. Slaveholders would make examples out of those who tried to escape, often brutally murdering them and displaying their bodies along public roads as a warning to others who may be thinking of attempting to flee or planning and uprising.
Walker’s youth was filled with a dichotomy of sorts. On one hand, he was surrounded by plantations and estates crowded with enslaved individuals. North Carolina slave country was overflowing with bondsmen tasked with jobs such as building designers, carpenters and masons. On the other hand, he was free and pursued education, something not supported - and in some areas explicitly banned - for black Americans, regardless of their status. Walker observed this ongoing contradiction and was distinctly aware of the treatment of those who were relegated to chains. Living in a city with a limited free black population, Walker made a decision to distance himself from the ever present and daily horrors of witnessing forced servitude and headed to Charleston. Of his decision to leave his home, Walker later wrote he wanted to avoid a place where quote “I must hear slaves’ chains continually and where I must encounter the insults of their hypocritical enslavers” end quote.
Charleston, a bigger city with a much larger free black population, also promised an increased likelihood of gainful employment and therefore economic security. It was in Charleston where Walker further developed his faith, joining the African Methodist Episcopal, or AME Church. While he likely attended church services as a young child, it seems he found a deeper calling after joining AME.
Walker would later use his religious faith as another tool in his anti-slavery crusade. In writing his appeal, Walker called out the hypocrisy of the white citizens who supposedly worshiped god, but denied those they held as property the ability to do the same, writing quote: “And those enemies who have for hundreds of years stolen our rights, and kept us ignorant of Him and His divine worship, he will remove. Millions of whom, are this day, so ignorant and avaricious, that they cannot conceive how God can have an attribute of justice, and show mercy to us because it please Him to make us black - which color, Mr. Jefferson calls unfortunate” end quote.
Walker moved several more times before finally settling in Boston by 1825 where he started working as a used-clothing dealer, operating a shop out of the North End. He met Eliza Butler, who came from a prominent black family in Boston and they were married in 1826. They took up residence on Beacon Hill, setting up their home next to the African Meeting House, a known gathering place for abolitionists in Boston.
Walker played a prominent role in Black civic institutions such as the Prince Hall FreeMasonry, Massachusetts General Colored Association and the Methodist Church of Reverend Samuel Snowden. While in Boston, again surrounded by a large free black population and abolitionist sentiment, Walker began to publish his own arguments against the practice, writing several articles for Freedom’s Journal, the first African American owned newspaper based out of New York. One prominent abolitionist also took notice, William Lloyd Garrison, who provided extensive coverage to Walker, publishing at least nine of his articles in his own newspaper, The Liberator.
But it was in 1829 where Walker took the biggest step in combating the practice of slavery, publishing his Appeal. The pamphlet, made up of four articles, systematically attacks and highlights the insincerity of the self-professed christian white enslavers for their violent forced servitude of black bodies and calls on his fellow black americans to immediately stand up against the tyranny inherent in slavery. Though living in a city filled with abolitionist sentiment and born a free man, Walker knew he was risking his safety and perhaps even his life with publishing his pamphlet. In the opening pages of his appeal, Walker admitted as such, writing quote:
“I am fully aware, in making this appeal to my much afflicted and suffering brethren, that I shall not only be assailed by those whose greatest earthly desires are, to keep us in abject ignorance and wretchedness, and who are of the firm convictions that Heaven has designed us and our children to be slaves and beasts of burden to them and their children. I say, I do not only expect to be held up to the public as an ignorant, impudent and restless disturber of the public peace, by such avaricious creatures, as well as a mover of insubordination - and perhaps put in prison or to death, for giving a superficial exposition of our miseries, and exposing tyrants” end quote.
And he was correct in his assessment. Word of Walker’s Appeal spread, as he found ingenious ways to smuggle the highly inflammatory pamphlet throughout the country, including the deep south. He relied on sympathetic sailors who were boarding ships to ports all along the eastern seaboard and resorted to some pretty clever tricks to protect his cargo, including sowing the pamphlet into the lining of clothing. Before long, his pamphlet reached the hands and ears of people in Georgia, Virginia and his home state of North Carolina.
The white slave holding establishment quickly expressed their anger towards and offense at Walker’s words. Enslavers, always concerned about the potential for uprisings of those they held in forced bondage, quickly put a price tag on Walker, promising $1,000 for his death or $10,000 if captured alive.
Even politicians got involved in the saga, with the Mayor of Boston condemning Walker’s work, yet stopping short of exerting any punishment against him. Making sure his displeasure was known, Virginia Governor William Giles wrote to Mayor Otis in 1830 writing quote: “permit me sir, however to observe, that I see with the most profound sorrow and regret, fanatics of a much higher order… are industriously intermedding by wild and impracticable projects to meliorate the condition of slaves in this state” end quote. In other words, the people of Boston sure had a lot of opinions about slavery in Virginia and the Governor was tired of it.
Throughout the pamphlet, Walker championed not only the need to immediately abolish the practice of slavery, but also the need to improve the lives of black americans. As Walker biographer Peter Hinks writes, quote “Walker’s commitment to black education was deep: he particularly stressed the need for educated blacks to teach their untutored fellows the basics” end quote. He was committed to improving the conditions of his fellow black Americans, writing about the need to ensure children gain access to education as a way to prove detractors wrong in their assumptions of black people. Writing quote: “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 labors among you brethren, and particularly the youths, be the dissemination of education and religion” end quote.
One of the most forceful passages, in my opinion, of Walker’s appeal was when he took his fellow citizens to task, writing quote: “The Americans say, that we are ungrateful - but I ask them for heaven’s sake , what should we be grateful to them for - for murdering our fathers and mothers? - Or do they wish us to return thanks to them for chaining and handcuffing us, branding us, cramming fire down our throats, or for keeping us in slavery, and beating us nearly or quite to death to make us work in ignorance and miseries, to support them and their families” end quote. This direct and biting swipe coming from a black man of this time period is historic given not only the time it was published, but how unapologetic his charge was. Here was a man who was not trying to hide behind a pseudonym and who practically dared detractors to come after him. Not only is this a painfully beautiful passage, it is also considerably brave given the time period in which it was written.
Walker had a laundry list of reasons he felt slavery should be terminated and why white americans should not be the ones deciding their fate. A popular idea of the time period was to ship the free black population in America across the ocean and set up colonies in Africa. This idea oddly resonated across the political and racial spectrum and was championed by a wide range of individuals. Those who held human property favored removing free black people from the county so as to avoid any potential influence of bondsmen and women seeing people who looked like them moving about with freedom they would never experience for themselves.
For abolitionists, they believed sending black americans to Africa would allow them to escape the racial prejudice they consistently faced and would allow them to live without fear of racism or violence. The idea of colonization even spoke to some black citizens who also felt they would never truly feel freedom while slavery was allowed to flourish.
This idea became so widespread and supported that organizations were started aimed at trying to figure out the logistics behind shipping people off to another country. One of the most well known of these organizations, the American Colonization Society, was started in 1817 and succeeded in establishing colonies and shipping people across the ocean. By 1862, the society had managed to transport more than 13,000 emigrants. Many prominent Americans were members of the American Colonization Society, including Presidents James Monroe and James Madison as well as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
But as you might imagine, David Walker was not one of those who believed in the idea behind removing people from the country. He took to his appeal to call out Clay and the idea of forced immigration, writing quote: “Let no man of us budge one step, and let slave-holders come to beat us from our country. America is more our country, than it is the whites - we have enriched it with our blood and tears. The greatest riches in all American have arisen from our our blood and tears” end quote.
Shortly after his forceful and unapologetic appeal was published, Walker was found dead. Found slouched in his doorway on August 6th, 1830, the official cause of death given was consumption, otherwise known as tuberculosis. Many in the community cried foul and believed Walker’s untimely death at a young age was too suspicious given his notoriety and the price tag on his head. Walker biographer Peter Hinks leans towards the official cause of death being accurate, given the lack of evidence to the contrary. Whatever the truth, Walker passed away at just 33 years old, leaving behind a wife and son who was not born until after Walker passed away.
Though he never met his father, Edwin seemed infused with his father’s abolitionist spirit and would carry the torch for promoting black excellence throughout his life. He would become the first African American to be elected to the Massachusetts legislature and was nominated to run for president in 1896 under the Negro Party. Edwin passed away in 1901.
As the push for abolition expanded across the country and the world, David Walker’s Appeal continued to be a call to action for his fellow citizens. His pamphlet is available to read online; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it for yourself. I think you will join me in being amazed at his bravery and forceful take down of the systems and hypocrisy he saw all around him.
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