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African American History Forum

David Walker

American National Biography Online

Walker, David (1796?-6 Aug. 1830), used-clothing dealer and
political writer, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the
son probably of a free black woman and possibly of a slave father.
Almost nothing is known about either parent; only a little more
is known about Walker's years in the South. Walker was born in
a town where by 1800 African Americans predominated demographically
over whites by more than two to one. Their influence on the town
and the region was profound. Most labor--skilled or unskilled--was
performed by black slaves who were the foundation of the region's
key industries: naval stores production, lumbering, rice cultivation,
building construction, and shipping. The Methodist church in
Wilmington was largely the creation of the local black faithful.
The skill and resourcefulness of the African Americans amid their
enslavement deeply impressed Walker.

Sometime between 1815 and 1820 Walker left Wilmington and made
the short journey south to Charleston, South Carolina. He probably
decided to move because free blacks comprised a much higher percentage
of the black population in Charleston than in Wilmington, had
far greater economic opportunity there, and had created a number
of social and benevolent organizations to serve their needs.
How Walker was employed in Charleston is not known. By 1817 a
number of the town's black religious leaders formed one of the
first branches of the new African Methodist Episcopal church,
founded in Philadelphia in 1816 by Richard Allen. Walker was
probably exposed to this particular congregation and began then
his deep devotion to Allen and his example of racial and religious
courage. Walker must also have known of the relentless white
efforts to close the church and the bitterness that these attempts
engendered in many of its devout members. By 1821 these increasing
attacks helped provoke several members to begin plotting a revolt
against slavery in the region. This complicated plot--named after
the free black carpenter who orchestrated it, Denmark Vesey--coordinated
slaves and free blacks in the city with slaves in the surrounding
rice parishes to set fire to key points in the city, seize weapons
caches, and murder whites indiscriminately in the confusion on
a predetermined night in June 1822. However, the conspiracy was
revealed very late by an informer, and all the principals were
soon arrested, summarily tried, and hanged. Walker was in Charleston
at least as late as 1821 and probably for this series of dramatic
events in 1822 as well. This may have influenced his later efforts
to link black empowerment and resistance in the South with religion.

By 1825 Walker had settled in Boston, Massachusetts, and had
opened a used-clothing store near the city's wharves. In 1826
he entered the social life of the black community more fully,
marrying a local woman, Eliza Butler, in February and in July
becoming initiated into Prince Hall Masonry at African Lodge
No. 459, North America's first black masonic lodge. Membership
in this order gave Walker immediate access to most of black Boston's
prominent men, and he soon became a leading political force in
the community. He also affiliated with a local black Methodist
congregation whose minister, Samuel Snowden, was a fiery preacher
and an impassioned antislavery activist. They developed a very
close friendship. In 1827 Walker championed the United States'
first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, and was its principal
agent in Boston. Along with his fellow lodge brothers he helped
organize and police several parades, or "African Celebrations,"
in the heart of Boston's African-American community, the heavily
black-settled north slope of Beacon Hill. Walker spoke at one
celebration honoring the visit of an African prince, Abduhl Rahhaman,
recently emancipated in the South. He also played a key role
in creating the Massachusetts General Colored Association, formed
no later than 1828 and one of the first avowedly black political
organizations in the country. In December of that year Walker
articulated its essential position: "[T]he primary object of
this institution is to unite the colored population, so far,
through the United States . . . and not [withhold] anything which
may have the least tendency to meliorate our miserable condition."
By early 1829, a recent inductee into the tiny club of black
homeowners in Boston and his community's leading political voice,
Walker prepared to undertake his greatest challenge.

On 28 September 1829 Walker published the first edition of the
work for which he is best known, Appeal to the Colored Citizens
of the World, one of the most influential black political documents
of the nineteenth century. Displaying a vehemence and outrage
unprecedented among contemporary African-American authors, Walker's
Appeal decried in vivid and personal terms the uniquely savage,
un-Christian treatment blacks suffered in the United States,
especially as slaves: [W]e Coloured People of these United States,
are, the most wretched, degraded and abject set of beings that
ever lived since the world began, down to the present day, and,
that, the white Christians of America, who hold us in slavery,
(or, more properly speaking, pretenders to Christianity,) treat
us more cruel and barbarous than any Heathen nation did any people
whom it had subjected. (p. i) By depriving African Americans
of secular education, the word of God, civil liberties, and any
position of social responsibility, white Americans forced blacks
closer and closer to the life of brutes. Indeed the most "insupportable
insult" that whites hurled at blacks--expressed the most fully,
Walker charged, in Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia--was
that "they were not of the human family" but descended originally
"from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang-Outangs." Walker feared
the profound demoralization such pervasive attitudes would have
on African Americans and intended the Appeal to be a clarion
to them of their worth as humans, their noble history in Africa,
and God's special love for them. Walker's Appeal challenged African
Americans to uplift and organize themselves and cast off this
oppression that, he proclaimed, God found an intolerable provocation
and sinful for them to endure any longer: "[Y]our full glory
and happiness . . . under Heaven, shall never be fully consummated,
but with the entire emancipation of your enslaved brethren all
over the world" (p. 29).

By late 1829 and throughout 1830 Walker terrified white southern
authorities with novel efforts to circulate his pamphlet on their
turf. Relying on black and white mariners to introduce the booklet
into key southern ports, and sometimes using the mail, Walker
sought especially to enlist the support of educated and evangelical
black leaders in these towns in reaching out to the local black
masses and rallying them to the message of the Appeal. His plan,
while never fully formulated or enacted, nevertheless bespoke
one of the boldest and most extensive visions of slave empowerment
and rebellion ever conceived in antebellum America. Although
officials in the South had stemmed the circulation of his book
by late 1830, fear of his and his associates' further subversions
continued to trouble them into 1831. Several states reacted by
strengthening their laws against slave literacy, the circulation
of antislavery matter, and contact between transient black seamen
and local black residents in ports.

Walker's work remained an inspiration for many young African
Americans who, by the early 1830s, were becoming much more assertive
in their calls for an end to slavery and racial discrimination.
The young black activist Maria Stewart summarized black Boston's
reverence for him in 1831 when she referred to him in a speech
as "the most noble, fearless, and undaunted David Walker." Although
rumors circulated widely that Walker's death in Boston was caused
by poisoning from a southern assassin, his death certificate
stated the cause as consumption, the same disease from which
his infant daughter Lydia Ann had died a few days earlier. David
Walker was probably the father of Edwin Garrison Walker, who
in 1861 became one of the first blacks admitted to the Massachusetts
bar and who earned similar distinction when elected to the Massachusetts
legislature in 1866. By the 1890s he had gained national prominence
as the president of the Colored National League.


Herbert Aptheker summarizes the historical setting in which
the Appeal was written, Walker's efforts to circulate it, and
its impact in "One Continual Cry": David Walker's Appeal to the
Colored Citizens of the World (1829-1830)--Its Setting and Its
Meaning (1965). Essential reading for understanding its distribution
in the South is Clement Eaton, "A Dangerous Pamphlet in the Old
South," Journal of Southern History 2 (1936): 323-34. Merton
Dillon also examines Walker's significance in Slavery Attacked:
Southern Slaves and Their Allies, 1619-1865 (1990), pp. 145-50,
as does Vincent Harding in There Is a River: The Black Struggle
for Freedom in America (1981), pp. 75-100. Harding conducts an
interesting investigation of possible ties between Walker and
the famous Virginia rebel Nat Turner. Donald Jacobs narrates
the events of Walker's important Boston years in "A History of
the Boston Negro from the Revolution to the Civil War" (Ph.D.
diss., Boston Univ., 1968), pp. 55-79, and "David Walker: Boston
Race Leader, 1825-1830," Essex Institute Historical Collections
107 (1971): 94-107. Sterling Stuckey argues for Walker's seminal
role in articulating a theory of black nationalism in Slave Culture:
Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987),
pp. 98-137. Wilson Jeremiah Moses places Walker in the tradition
of black jeremiads, intended to move America from the sin of
slaveholding and return it to its best liberal and Christian
values, in Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary
Manipulations of a Religious Myth (1982), pp. 38-46. The most
comprehensive examination of Walker, his Appeal, and his broader
meaning in antebellum and African-American history is Peter P.
Hinks, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the
Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance (1996).

Peter P. Hinks

Peter P. Hinks. "Walker, David";;
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Access Date:
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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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