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Walker, David

Walker, David

c. 1785
June 28, 1830

The civil rights activist and pamphleteer David Walker was born free in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son of a free white mother and a slave father. He traveled extensively in the South and observed the cruelty of slavery firsthand. Little is known about his life until he settled in Boston, where he was living as early as 1826. A tall, dark-complexioned mulatto, he operated a clothing store, selling both new and secondhand clothes, and became a leader in Boston's black community. Walker was a member of Father Snowden's Methodist Church and was active in the Massachusetts General Colored Association, formed in 1826. He was a contributor of funds to emancipate George M. Horton, a slave poet in North Carolina, and also served as an agent for Freedom's Journal (New York), established in 1827. Walker and his wife, Eliza, had one son, Edwin G. Walker, who later became the first black elected to the Massachusetts legislature.

Walker represented a new generation of black leaders forged by the experience of creating the first extensive free black communities in urban centers of the United States in the half-century after the American Revolution. The achievement of African Americans in establishing institutions (churches, schools, and mutual aid and fraternal societies) and in producing leaders (ministers, educators, businessmen) emboldened some in Walker's generation to challenge the reigning view among whites that African Americans, even if freed, were destined to remain a degraded people, a caste apart, better served by the removal of free blacks to Africa, which became the objective of the American Colonization Society (ACS), formed in 1817 by leading statesmen and clergy.

In an address in 1828 delivered before the Massachusetts General Colored Association, Walker laid out a strategy of opposition. Overcoming resistance to organization from within the black community, Walker and others recognized the need for a formal association to advance the race by uniting "the colored population, so far, through the United States of America, as may be practicable and expedient; forming societies, opening, extending, and keeping up correspondences" (Freedom's Journal, December 19, 1828). Presaging his famous Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, Walker sought to arouse blacks to mutual aid and self-help, to cast off passive acquiescence in injustice, and to persuade his people of the potential power that hundreds of thousands of free blacks possessed, once mobilized.

Published in 1829, Walker's Appeal aimed at encouraging black organization and individual activism. It went through three editions in two years, each one longer than the previous one, the final version reaching eighty-eight pages. For many readers, the most startling aspect of the Appeal was its call for the violent revolt of slaves against their masters. But Walker was also vitally concerned with the institutions of free blacks in the North. Walker understood that the formation of organizations such as the Massachusetts General Colored Association and the appearance of Freedom's Journal in 1827 were evidence of a rising tide of black opposition to slavery and racism. Walker, along with many African-American activists of his era, was profoundly opposed to the African colonization schemes of the American Colonization Society. Colonizationists ignored and suppressed the prevailing black opposition and sought support among African Americans. For Walker, colonization represented an immediate threat to any long-term hopes of black advancement, since its cardinal assumption was that such advancement was impossible.

Walker's Appeal was thus much more than a cry of conscience, for all its impassioned rhetoric. Despite its rambling organization, its prophetic denunciations of injustice and apocalyptic predictions, the Appeal forms a

complex, cogent argument with political purpose: to persuade blacks to struggle with whites to abandon colonization and to strive toward racial equality. The essay culminates in an attack on colonization and concludes with an affirmation of the Declaration of Independence.

David Walker

"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 Their prejudices will be obliged to fall lightning to the ground, in succeeding generations."

david walker's appeal. revised edition, new york: hill and wang, 1995.

Walker aimed the Appeal at two audiences simultaneously. His first target was blacks, whose achievements in history, Walker argued, rebutted the degraded view popularized by colonizationists and the "suspicion" of Thomas Jefferson of inherent black intellectual inferiority. Walker insisted on the importance of black self-help through rigorous education and occupational training to refute Jefferson and others. He was also unsparing in his condemnation of the ignorance and passivity of free blacks and the complicity of the enslavedof their acquiescence in helping to sustain the American racial regime. Yet in justifying physical resistancethe element which most alarmed many readers in his own day and sinceWalker carefully qualified his views. He relied primarily on the power of persuasion to convince white people to recognize that slavery and racism perverted Christianity and republicanism, though his apocalyptic warnings undoubtedly were designed to stir fear in the hearts of tyrants.

Indeed, Walker succeeded in creating this fear. He circulated copies of the Appeal through the mails and via black and white seamen who carried them to southern ports in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. Southern leaders became alarmed and adopted new laws against teaching free blacks to read or write, demanding that Mayor Harrison Gray Otis of Boston take action against Walker. Otis gave assurances that Walker's was an isolated voice, without sympathy in the white community, but Walker had violated no laws. Georgians, however, placed a large sum on Walker's head. In 1830, Walker died from unknown causes amid suspicion, never confirmed, of foul play.

Few documents in American history have elicited such diverse contemporary and historical evaluations as Walker's Appeal. Benjamin Lundy, the pioneer abolitionist, condemned it as incendiary. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (18051879) admired the Appeal 's "impassioned and determined spirit," and its "bravery and intelligence," but thought it "a most injudicious publication, yet warranted by the creed of an independent people." The black leader Henry Highland Garnet (18151882) in 1848 proclaimed it "among the first, and the boldest and most direct appeals in behalf of freedom, which was made in the early part of the Antislavery Reformation." In 1908 a modern white historian, Alice D. Adams, deemed it "a most bloodthirsty document," while in 1950 the African-American scholar Saunders Redding thought "it was scurrilous, ranting, madbut these were the temper of the times." In their biography of their father, the Garrison children probably came closest to the truth about Walker: "his noble intensity, pride, disgust, fierceness, his eloquence, and his general intellectual ability have not been commemorated as they deserve."

See also Abolition; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Free Blacks, 16191860; Freedom's Journal ; Slavery


Aptheker, Herbert. "One Continual Cry": David Walker's Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (18291830). New York: Humanities Press, 1965.

Garrison, W. P., and F. J. Garrison. William Lloyd Garrison, 18051879. The Story of His Life, Told by His Children, vol. 1. New York: The Century Company, 1885.

Horton, James O., and Lois E. Horton. Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979. Revised edition, 1999.

Litwack, Leon F. North of Slavery: The Negro in the Free States, 17901860. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Peters, James S., II. The Spirit of David Walker: The Obscure Hero. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002.

paul goodman (1996)
Updated bibliography

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