David Walker (c. 1785—1830) was a significant force in the freedom struggles of African Americans during the early nineteenth century. In 1829, he published An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. It was a document unlike any other anti-slavery, pro-justice treatise of the antebellum period. As Frederick Douglass noted, Walker’s Appeal “startled the land.”
Despite the mystery surrounding Walker’s early life—records of his birth have never been found— it is certain that his social class, southern roots, and involvement in the African Methodist Episcopal church influenced his social activism in Boston during the 1820s. David Walker was born free sometime between 1785 and 1797 in Wilmington, North Carolina. How he was educated is also open to speculation. While the Appeal is written in a style and language consistent with someone possessing a high educational background, how or where Walker received such an education remains unknown. Between 1815 and 1820, he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, a city regarded—with its large free black population—as a leader in providing greater occupational opportunities for free black men.
Sometime before 1825 (when his name first appeared in the Boston City Directory), David Walker moved north to Boston where his career as a freedom fighter took off.
In Boston, David Walker moved to Brattle Street. He opened a clothing business. He quickly became active in the politics and social activism of the black community. This store, which also doubled as his home, was located on the wharves of Boston Harbor in the hotbed of the black clothing industry. This industry was run by a small yet elite group of middle-class black men with whom Walker established political and social friendships that would last him the rest of his life. In 1826, after moving to a home on Southac (now Phillips) Street, he married Eliza Butler. She was a woman from a prominent black family. This further cemented his position in the small, close-knit black elite. That same year, he became a master in the Prince Hall Masons. In the next four years (from 1826 to 1830), Walker’s clothing business on Brattle Street prospered. He moved his family first to Belknap (now Joy) Street and finally to Bridge Street. He joined the May Street Methodist Church. Then he became a colleague and friend of the Reverend Samuel Snowden.
David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World influenced, and was influenced by, the development of the black reform movement that swept the North during the 1820s and 1830s. This reform movement was marked by three trends:
. 1) the foundation and further development of independent black social and religious institutions, such as African Methodism;
. 2) the foundation of independent organizations and publications opposing white interference in the destiny of free black communities, such as collective denunciation of colonization; and
. 3) the establishment of independent social institutions to protect and promote the rights of free black people in northern cities.
In Boston, David Walker was involved in all of these aspects of the black reform movement. In March 1827, he and a group of his fellow black leaders met in his home to distribute the first Boston issue of Freedom’s Journal. It was the first national black newspaper in the country. Published out of New York City, Freedom’s Journal had its roots in the anti-colonization movement of the northeast and immediately became a rallying point for black political activists. In Boston, David Walker became an agent for the journal, raising funds for its importation and distribution throughout the city.
In 1828, Walker became a founding member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA). It was committed to promoting the interests and rights of black Americans, both locally and nationally. In the association’s inaugural address, David Walker stated that the object of the MGCA was “to unite the colored population, so far, through the United States of America, as may be practicable and expedient.” Through his direct involvement in the black reform movement of the 1820s, Walker gained the political savvy and social influence to write his Appeal, the most significant black antislavery document in the antebellum period.
Published in 1829 by local white printers who had previously published articles for the African Masonic Lodge, the Appeal espoused the following themes for black liberation and racial equality. First, Walker stated that slavery in America was the most oppressive in world history. Americans, he said, “have and do continue to treat [black people] more cruel than any heathen nation ever did a people it had subjected to the same condition that you have us” (Appeal, 69). Secondly, he pointed to the blatant inconsistencies of colonial struggles for emancipation from Britain while Americans continued to enslave Africans. He stated, “Compare your own language . . . with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us. . . . I ask you cordially, was your suffering under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?”
Thirdly, Walker scolded black people for being submissive to white injustice. He urged them to resist slavery and oppression by any means and to create independent black organizations for community self-determination and improvement. He stated, “ . . . we can help ourselves; for if we lay aside abject servility and be determined to act like men . . . the murderers among the whites would be afraid to show their cruel heads” (62). Finally, Walker stated that white Americans must stop their oppression of black people or suffer the vengeful wrath of God. Whites were no better than blacks; in fact, they were hypocritical, for they valiantly proclaimed the virtues of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while simultaneously denying liberty, happiness, and equality to black people. Specifically, Walker criticized Thomas Jefferson for extolling the virtues of American democracy and independence while denying the humanity of black people in his essay, “The Rights of Man.”
To distribute the Appeal, David Walker used his skills as a clothier to sew the pamphlet into the clothes of sailors who frequented the wharves around his shop on Boston Harbor. In addition, he used his knowledge of the riverboat network in the Carolinas, and his contact with southern blacks on the eastern seaboard, to disseminate the Appeal to southern black communities. The success of this distribution, and the potential the Appeal had to inspire black insurrection against slavery and oppression, was not lost on white southerners. A bounty was taken out on Walker’s head by southern legislatures. The power of the Appeal, however, could not be suppressed. Abolitionists and activists throughout the nineteenth century—from William Lloyd Garrison to Frederick Douglass—recognized the Appeal’s importance in the continuing struggle for American freedom and equality.
Although David Walker’s death in 1830 is shrouded in rumor and myth—a popular misconception is that he died under suspicious circumstances—all evidence supports a natural death from consumption. Within his short lifetime, however, Walker managed to create the most incendiary antebellum abolitionist document in America and significantly alter the path toward African-American liberty.
1. Why did David Walker publish An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World?
a. He wanted to avoid a slave rebellion.
b. He was an African-American publisher.
c. He was opposed to the institution of slavery.
d. He had been born a free man in North Carolina.
2. How did Walker distribute his Appeal?
a. He delivered the pamphlets from door-to-door.
b. He sewed the pamphlets into clothing.
c. He ran the press out of his clothing store.
d. He and his wife sent pamphlets overseas.
3. Why was the Appeal considered inflammatory by southern legislatures?
a. They vehemently disagreed with Walker ’s statements.
b. They were shocked by the language he had used in the Appeal.
c. They wanted to show the slaves that they were not moved by the Appeal.
d. They feared that it would cause slaves to rise up against their owners.
4. In his Appeal, for what did Walker reproach black slaves?
a. The slaves were obedient and did not fight their owners.
b. The slaves were often indifferent to their own circumstances.
c. The slaves were frightened of their owners.
d. The slaves were uneducated about their rights.
5. Why did Walker believe that white Americans were hypocrites?
a. White Americans were unable to see the injustice of slavery.
b. White Americans treated slaves like humans, but made them work like horses.
c. White Americans believed in freedom, but allowed slavery to continue.
d. White Americans did not free the slaves when they were writing the Constitution.
How did David Walker’s Appeal affect the cause of African-American liberty? Why was it an important document for many African Americans to read? Why was it an important document for white Americans to read? Explain, using information from the passage to support your answers.