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Who is David Walker?

Ben Steelman

Born in the Wilmington area, David Walker (1796-1830) wrote and self-published his “Appeal … to the Colored Citizens of the World,” in 1829 — the earliest anti-slavery tract written by an African American, and one of the most influential ever written. Predating the launch of William Lloyd Garrison’s journal, The Liberator, by two years, Walker’s “Appeal” marked a turn in the American abolitionist movement from peaceful reform to a more militant stance.

The son of a slave and a free woman of color, Walker was born free, but by his own account, he quickly grew disgusted with the slave system he saw around him. Earlier accounts placed his birthdate in 1785, but later scholarship suggests that 1796 or 1797 is more plausible. Most sources list Wilmington as his birthplace, although there is a possibility he might have been born across the Cape Fear River, on Maj. Gen. Robert Howe’s Brunswick County plantation.

Details of Walker’s early life are scant, but somewhere he learned to read and acquired some education. He appears to have traveled around the South before settling in Boston by 1825. There, he supported himself by running a used clothing store, catering to sailors, near the city’s waterfront. He became the Boston agent for Freedom’s Journal, an African-American newspaper, and contributed several articles to the publication.

In 1826, Walker married Eliza Butler, of a notable free black Boston family, and he set down roots, joining the Prince Hall Masons, the Methodist Church and the Massachusetts General Colored Association, an abolitionist group.

In 1829, using an African-American printer he had apparently met through the Freemasons, Walker published “Walker’s 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.” The 76-page document argued that if the principles of the Declaration of Independence were true, then slaves had the right to rise up against their masters and demand immediate emancipation, by force if necessary.

Walker disputed the claims by Thomas Jefferson and others that Africans were subhman and inferior to whites. He declared that the “wretchedness” of blacks, free and enslaved, arose from slavery, a submissive attitude toward whites, indifference from white clergy and from being misled by false friends, such as the American Colonization Society. He devoted much space to denouncing the Colonization Society’s efforts to have free slaves resettled in its African colony, Liberia: “America is more our country, than it is the whites, he wrote, “we have enriched it with our blood and tears.”

Unusual among abolitionists of his time, Walker demanded immediate and complete emancipation, and he did not shy away from violence. “If there is an attempt [at freedom] made by us, kill or be killed,” he wrote. “Now, I ask you, had you rather not be killed than be a slave to a tyrant, who takes the life of your mother, wife and dear little children?”

Copies of Walker’s “Appeal” began to appear in the South within weeks, many of them apparently delivered and distributed by Walker’s sailor customers. Some copies were apparently smuggled, sewn in the lining of clothes.

White response to the document was immediate and alarmed: In Wilmington, vigilantes attacked the homes of free blacks who were believed to be distributing it. In New Orleans, four blacks were arrested for owning copies. In Savannah, white authorities seized dozens of copies, and the mayor demanded that Boston authorities arrest Walker and ban the pamphlet. (They refused.) Georgia and Louisiana banned the “Appeal” outright.

At the request of Gov. John Owen, North Carolina’s General Assembly passed a number of repressive laws in 1830, in response to the “Appeal,” making it a crime to teach slaves to read or write and placing quarantines on black sailors and other blacks entering the state. Planters offered a $3,000 bounty for Walker’s death, and the Georgia legislature offered $10,000 to anyone who delivered him to the South alive.

On June 28, 1830, Walker was found dead in the doorway of his shop, shortly after the third edition of his “Appeal” was released. Boston officials ruled “consumption” (tuberculosis) was the cause of death, although supporters strongly suspected foul play. The “Appeal” continued to circulate, however, and Southern whites blamed it for inciting the Nat Turner uprising of 1831 in Virginia, in which 55 whites were killed.

In 2002, historian Molefi Kete Asante added Walker to his list of “100 Greatest African Americans.” In 2001, North Carolina’s Highway Historical Marker Program approved a marker for Walker, to be erected at North Third and Davis streets in Wilmington.

Walker’s son, Edwin Garrison Walker, was one of the first African Americans admitted to the bar in Massachusetts and, in 1883, the first to be elected to the Massachusetts legislature.

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