Walker, David c. 1796–1830
David Walker was born free in Wilmington, New Hanover County, North Carolina, to a free black woman and an enslaved man. Walker was one of fewer than two dozen free blacks in the city, most of whom labored side by side with the enslaved in the city’s port economy. Accounting for nearly 60 percent of New Hanover County’s total population, African Americans on the Lower Cape Fear were dominant as workers in the maritime trades, into which they infused their specialized knowledge and cultural heritage. Highly concentrated in the population, they also shaped institutions such as the church. Walker likely encountered the Methodist faith here, which was strong in Wilmington. Church membership offered Wilmington African Americans— particularly free blacks such as Walker—opportunities to gain leadership skills, discuss troubles confronting them, and learn of the situations of blacks in other locations. This was particularly true of enslaved blacks working with seamen, whose vessels traveled up and down the Atlantic coastline and abroad.
Moving to another seaport city—Charleston, South Carolina—sometime in the 1810s, Walker found a much larger black population, numbering more than 3,600 in 1820 and constituting almost three-quarters of the city’s residents, and a complex urban economy. Established a century earlier by English slaveholders from Barbados, Charleston had an almost Caribbean pattern of racial relations, featuring important social distinctions between Caucasians, white-appearing free black elites, and dark free African American and enslaved black masses. A product of complex racial histories that privileged the descendants of mixed-race unions, this multi-tiered racial caste system (whites, free black elites, nonelite free blacks, and the enslaved) at times fostered class divisions among African Americans that likely informed Walker’s concern with black disunity.
Charleston also offered a rich institutional life for the city’s large free black population, which numbered nearly 1,400 in 1820. In 1817 the city became home to a congregation of the newly founded African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the first independent black church in the nation. Walker was clearly influenced by, and likely participated in, this rare autonomous black institution in the heart of the plantocracy. Another institution, the Brown Fellowship Society, likely imparted a subtler but just as critical influence on Walker. Begun in 1790 as a burial society, the institution catered only to Charleston’s free mulatto (“colored” or “brown”) elite. Inspired by these experiences, Walker later wrote clearly about the class and status divisions that undermined the unity of Africandescended people in America.
During his time in Charleston, Walker could not have been unaffected by the prosecution of African Americans involved in Denmark Vesey’s alleged plot to lead a slave revolt involving thousands. Vesey, a free black man, conspired with enslaved African Americans and other free blacks to rise up on July 14, 1822—a date commemorating the French Revolution’s Bastille Day— and take over the city before fleeing to the black Caribbean nation of Haiti. Betrayed by two slaves, the plan never came to fruition. White authorities responded with a brutal campaign of repression, during which forty-three of Vesey’s followers were deported and thirty-five hanged, including Vesey himself. In the wake of this repression, Walker may have decided to move north.
After moving to Boston by 1825, Walker encountered a community of African Americans numbering around 1,000, most of whom were economically and socially depressed. On Brattle Street, Walker opened a clothing business, which became a locus of black organizing, and married Eliza Butler, a member of Boston’s African American middle class. As his business grew, he took on roles of community leadership. He became a Prince Hall Mason, a member of Samuel Snowden’s Union United Methodist Episcopal Church, and an agent for Freedom’s Journal, the first black newspaper in America. Walker was also a cofounder of the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA), a pioneer black antislavery and racial uplift group established in 1826.
In meetings of the MGCA, often in his store, Walker developed the ideas that would coalesce into his most significant historical contribution, a revolutionary seventy-six-page pamphlet titled David 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. First published in late 1829 by a sympathetic Boston printer, the Appeal went through three quick editions, each featuring minor changes, the last being published in June 1830. Understanding the incendiary nature of his work, Walker relied on friends and sympathizers in the shipping trades to distribute the Appeal to southern ports, going so far as to smuggle copies in the lining of sailors’ clothing.
Four themes dominated Walker’s concerns in the Appeal. The first was that American slavery constituted the gravest moral violation in the history of the world, a crime that demanded immediate abolition. “We, (coloured people of these United States) are the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began,” Walker charged. Following this, he asserted that God’s judgment would fall upon the country for slavery unless the institution was immediately abolished. God would redeem the nation once slavery and prejudice were extirpated. Relying on a long tradition of American jeremiad, Walker admonished the nation about the consequences of countenancing slavery. “Americans!!,” he railed, “I warn you in the name of the Lord … to repent and reform, or you are ruined!!!”
Walker declared that African Americans had a duty to awaken themselves politically. Primarily, this meant conscious efforts to forge a much needed unity, defined by the goal of self-liberation, among scattered black populations. Walker repeatedly stressed the importance of unity among African Americans. “Remember that unless you are united,” he wrote, “keeping your tongues within your teeth, you will be afraid to trust your secrets to each other, and thus perpetuate our miseries under the Christians!!!!!” Walker thus called upon black people themselves to play the foremost role in dismantling the mechanisms of their oppression. While violence served as one possible means, more important was the effort to uplift the black population through a rigorous campaign of self-education. This promised not simply to combat the ignorance caused by slavery and racism but also to expose the long history of wrongs done to blacks. “For colored people to acquire learning in this country, makes tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation,” Walker believed; the words of educated African Americans would make blacks’s oppressors “know that their infernal deeds of cruelty will be made known to the world.”
Contemporary black thinkers such as William J. Watkins of Baltimore and Samuel Cornish of New York and Freedom’s Journal, had expounded on themes similar to those Walker expressed in the Appeal. Unlike earlier black expressions of discontent, the pamphlet was revolutionary because of its uncompromising rhetoric and strident tone. Walker replaced the supplication characteristic of an earlier phase of black protest with a new militancy. In considering the prospect of revolt against slaveholders, for example, Walker cautioned his black readers, “Do not trifle, for they will not trifle with you… . If there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed.” Thus, employing a strident rhetorical style, more common to street-corner exhortation than learned discourse, Walker sought above all to energize his listeners. He clearly accomplished this among the southern white authorities who sought to suppress the work—by seizing copies of it when they could, initiating laws banning distribution of antislavery literature, and offering rewards for its author’s apprehension. Walker’s untimely death in 1830 was rumored to have been caused by these forces of reaction, though it is also likely that he fell victim to consumption.
While the Appeal helped inspire the conservative defense of slavery, it played an even more important role in the history of radical antislavery thought. Walker’s pamphlet helped drive white reformers such as William Lloyd Garrison to espouse the immediate abolition of slavery, though most white abolitionists distanced themselves from Walker’s militancy. Black activists such as Henry Highland Garnet consciously incorporated Walker’s themes into their own radicalism. The Appeal thus served as a comprehensive model for much later black protest thought, both modeling a tradition of black self-help designed to command whites’ respect and serving as a form of pragmatic black nationalism built on the political unity of all people of African descent. In the end, David Walker’s life and thought heralded the birth of a militant tradition of racial politics, in which a marginalized people sought to sway the “public mind” through the use of the printed word.
SEE ALSO Vesey, Denmark.
Walker, David. 1965 (1829). David 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. Edited by Charles M. Wiltse. New York: Hill and Wang.
_____2000. David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Edited by Peter P. Hinks. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press
Aptheker, Herbert. 1965. One Continual Cry: David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, 1829–1830, Its Setting & its Meaning, Together with the Full Text of the Third, and Last, Edition of the Appeal. New York: Humanities Press.
Garnet, Henry Highland. 1848. Walker’s Appeal, With a Brief Sketch of His Life. By Henry Highland Garnet. And Also Garnet’s Address to the Slaves of the United States of America. New York: J.H. Tobitt.
Hinks, Peter P. 1997. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. 1979. Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North. New York: Holmes and Meier.