feature: know your black history – abolitionist david walker

December 17, 2014
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“This country is as much ours as it the whites, whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by.” “America is more our country than it is the whites—we have enriched it with our blood, sweat and tears.” “The bare name of educating the coloured people scares our cruel oppressors almost to death.” These quotes are from a man who informed the thinking of the likes of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Yet his name is known to very few Americans. The Michael Brown and Eric Garner incidents have set off angry protests and panic in some parts of the United States. These two incidents have forced the U.S. to again face serious problems of race, racial profiling, systemic racism and the militarization of the police. But 185 years ago a pamphlet written by one man set off similar outrage in both the North and the South. This one man’s pamphlet was blamed for fanning the flames of racial unrest and cited as the cause of several slave revolts, including the Nat Turner rebellion. The man’s name was David Walker.

By  Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor

Walker was born in Wilmington, N.C. in 1795. His father was a slave but because his mother was free, Walker was born a free man. He was educated and left Wilmington between 1815 and 1820. He spent time in Charleston, S.C., which had a large free population of color. But Walker was disgusted with the situation in the South, saying “I could never live in a state where I hear the jingle of the chains of slavery.”

In 1825 Walker settled in Boston, and in 1826 married Eliza Butler, the daughter of a prosperous merchant. He opened a second-hand clothing store at City Market in Boston. He joined The Massachusetts General Colored Association and began contributing writings and selling subscriptions to Freedom’s Journal, an anti-slavery weekly, and the first newspaper owned and managed by African Americans.

By 1828 Walker was Boston’s leading abolitionist.

In 1829 David Walker, fed up with the racism he saw even in free states, wrote 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. This 70-page pamphlet indicted the Christian church, free people of color and whites for their hypocrisy and lack of action to rid the land of slavery and racism. The Appeal called on slaves to rise up violently to help abolish slavery. The Appeal also called for black unity and self-help in fighting the injustices of slavery and racism.

Those who were educated, Walker argued, had a special obligation to teach their brethren, and literate blacks were urged to read his pamphlet to those who could not. As Walker explained, “it is expected that all coloured men, women and children, of every nation, language and tongue under heaven, will try to procure a copy of this Appeal and read it, or get someone to read it to them, for it is designed more particularly for them.”

Walker’s next action shocked the nation and sent the South into a panic. Walker used the mail to distribute his pamphlets throughout the South. He also enlisted traveling preachers, sailors and laborers to transport and distribute his pamphlet.

The Appeal first surfaced in 1830 in Wilmington, N.C., probably from a distribution of 200 copies Walker sent addressed to Jacob Cowan. Cowan was a slave who was allowed by his slavemaster to keep a small tavern. Cowan used the tavern to circulate the Appeal. Unfortunately, a free black man reported Cowan to the police. Cowan was jailed and then sold into Alabama, where he could no longer have contact with people in North Carolina.

The Appeal spread through Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana due in part to Northern black and white sailors who carried copies of the Appeal sewed into their clothing.

In 1830 fully one-third of the legislative acts passed in the U.S. pertained to blacks.

In 1830 in New Bern, N.C. 60 slaves were killed during an uprising said to have been inspired by the Appeal. In that same year in New Orleans numerous suspicious fires were set, which were also attributed to the appearance of the Appeal in that state.

In 1830 the North Carolina General Assembly passed an Act to Prevent the Circulation of Seditious Publications. In North Carolina no contact was allowed between residents and incoming ships.

That same year Georgia required all visiting sailors to be quarantined. The Governor of Georgia and the Georgia legislature promised a $10,000 reward for the capture of Walker alive, $1,000 for him dead.

In 1831 The Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia sent whites in many places in the South into a full panic. In 1831 Virginia outlawed manumissions (the freeing of slaves). In 1834 voting rights were stripped from free people of color who had enjoyed that right since 1788, the year Virginia became a state.

In 1833 Alabama passed a law fining anyone who taught slaves or free people of color to read or write.

In 1834 New Orleans, one of the most important American ports for South/North trade, passed a law that imprisoned black sailors during the time their vessels were anchored at port. Many free black sailors refused to sign onto ships bound for New Orleans, fearing that their imprisonment could lead to them being sold into slavery. Free blacks caught distributing the Appeal were arrested.

In 1834 free people of color were disenfranchised in Tennessee. They had been able to vote since Tennessee had become a state in 1796.

In 1841 the State of Mississippi passed a law requiring all free blacks to leave the state, to prevent free blacks from educating or inciting slaves. In 1842 Mississippi outlawed manumission (the freeing of slaves) altogether.

Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison denounced the Appeal initially, because it called for violence in resisting and abolishing slavery. But Walker’s writing in the Appeal was filled with biblical citations regarding the abomination of slavery. Much of his religious rhetoric and reasoning was adopted later by Frederick Douglass and Garrison, who began publishing the Liberator in 1831. The early editions of the Liberator focused on Walker’s pamphlet. Walker’s insistence on self-help and education influenced W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr. His calls for violent resistance to slavery and racism were echoed by Malcolm X.

David Walker died at the age of 35 in August 1830. Rumors circulated that he had been poisoned because of the price put on his head. His daughter Lydia Ann had died of tuberculosis the week before and Walker’s death certificate listed tuberculosis as his cause of death. His other child Edward (aka Edwin) Walker was an attorney and in 1866 was one of the first two black men elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature.

As with so many of our other early black heroes like Juan St. Malo and Homer Plessy, no images of David Walker remain. But his writing in the Appeal lives on as a testament to the man. Many feel David Walker was responsible for starting the national abolitionist movement and influencing generations of activists who fought racism and injustice.

The full text of the Appeal is available at: http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/menu.html

Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. He has a contact blog www.findingoctave.com/contact.html for readers who may want to contact him.