...in 1830, David Walker, a prominent and outspoken black man, was found dead in his Boston home. The year before he had written David Walker's Appeal To the Coloured Citizens of the World, among the most powerful anti-slavery works ever written. Walker denounced the American institution of slavery as the most oppressive in world history and called on people of African descent to resist slavery and racism by any means. The book terrified southern slave owners, who immediately labeled it seditious. A price was placed on Walker's head: $10,000 if he were brought in alive, $1,000 if dead. Walker's writing would influence virtually every black leader who followed, including W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
"We (coloured people of these United States of America) are the most wretched, degraded and abject set of beings that ever lived . . . ." Thus David Walker began the first of four essays that comprise his Appeal, a fiery condemnation of slavery and racism.
But David Walker proclaimed his pride in being black. "Whites," he wrote, "think because they hold us in their infernal chains of slavery, that we wish to be white . . . but they are dreadfully deceived we wish to be just as it pleased our Creator to have made us." The book's full title was 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. It urged black people to create independent organizations as a means of controlling their own futures and improving their own lives.
Walker urged blacks to educate themselves; he called for unity, not only between enslaved and free blacks in the U.S. but among people of African descent around the world. Black leaders in the twentieth century would reaffirm this connection to the African diaspora.
There is almost no documentation of David Walker's early life not even the year of his birth. All we know is that he was born some time between 1785 and 1797 in Wilmington, North Carolina. His mother was a free black; his father was a slave. Since the law stipulated that a child's status followed that of his or her mother, David Walker was born free. Growing up in the Deep South, he observed firsthand the evils of slavery.
Sometime between 1815 and 1820 he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, which had a vibrant free black population. There he seems to have become involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Appeal makes clear the depth of his Christian faith and thorough knowledge of the Bible.
It's likely, but by no means certain, that in Charleston, Walker encountered Denmark Vesey, leader of a failed slave uprising. It is inconceivable that he did not know what unfolded in 1822. An estimated 9,000 men and women had prepared to take part in the revolt, but a fellow slave betrayed them. Vesey and 35 other black men were hanged.
Not long afterward Walker left the South. "If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long.. . . This is not the place for me, " he concluded. "I must leave this part of the country."
Walker moved to Boston; in 1825 his name appears in the City Directory as owner of a used clothing store. He quickly became active in the black community centered at the back of Beacon Hill. In March 1827, he began writing for and selling subscriptions to Freedom's Journal, the first national newspaper in the country published by blacks. The following year, he was a founding member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, committed to promoting the interests and rights of African Americans throughout the United States.
How and when Walker became not only literate but so well educated remains another open question. The Appeal refers to long periods of study: "I have been for years troubling the pages of historians, to find out what our fathers have done to the white Christians of America, to merit such . . . punishment as they have inflicted on them."
His book, which includes many historic references, makes clear the depth of his knowledge. He had read Jefferson's Notes on Virginia and eloquently disputed the former president's claims of black inferiority. He attacked head on the contradictions between revolutionary rhetoric and the Declaration of Independence. He asked Americans to compare their own language in the Declaration "with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us." Were the colonists' "sufferings under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical" as what slaves endured?
The Appeal got wide distribution, not only among free blacks but among his target audience the enslaved. Groups gathered secretly to listen to one of the few literate slaves read Walker's words out loud. Black sailors carried copies of the small book with them when their ships traveled to southern ports. Sometimes Walker sewed the small book into the clothes he sold.
His success at getting the book into the hands of southern blacks alarmed slaveholders. The Appeal was labeled "incendiary" and "subversive." It "produced more commotion amongst slaveholders than any volume of its size that was ever issued from an American press," wrote Walker's biographer Henry Highland Garnet. And no wonder. Walker exhorted blacks to "kill or be killed." He warned white Americans that "unless you speedily alter your course, you and your Country are gone!!!!!!"
Southern states passed laws against helping free or enslaved blacks become literate. Legislatures made it a crime to circulate "seditious" literature such as Walker's Appeal. Georgia lawmakers placed a price on Walker's life.
The circumstances surrounding David Walker's death remain a mystery. Many at the time were convinced he was poisoned. Some believe it still. Recent scholarship strongly suggests that he died of tuberculosis.
His militant call to action for the liberation and betterment of black people had a significant impact on the course of U.S. history and continues to resonate today: "There is great work for you to do," he told his fellow blacks. "You have to prove to the Americans and the world that we are MEN, and not brutes, as we have been represented, and by millions treated. Remember, to let the aim of your labours among your brethren, and particularly the youths, be the dissemination of education and religion."
Black Bostonians: Family Life and Struggle in the Antebellum North, by James Horton and Lois E. Horton (Holmes & Meier, 1999).
"David Walker" in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (Basic Books, 1999).
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 with an introduction by James Turner (reprinted by Black Classic Press, 1993).
Dictionary of American Negro Biography, ed. by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston (W.W. Norton & Company, 1982).
To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance, by Peter P. Hinks (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).