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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

David Walker

The sketchy details of David Walker’s brief life blend inexorably into the history of the 1830s, when a somewhat diffuse anti-slavery sentiment largely taken up with the notion of “colonizing” blacks back to Africa was annealed into an increasingly militant and organized abolitionist movement. No single factor accounted for this change; Garrison’s starting of The Liberator in 1831 was involved, as was the slave revolt led by Nat Turner later that year. But David Walker’s Appeal, coming from within and addressed primarily to the black community, and unprecedented both in its militance and for its extended argument against colonization, was surely a critical ingredient in that process.

David Walker was born September 28, 1785, in Wilmington, North Carolina—a town which, over a century later, would be the scene of the bloody race riot which forms the basis for Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition. His mother was a free black woman, his father—who died some months before he was born—a slave, and thus, in accord with the laws of the South’s “peculiar institution,” David followed the “condition of his mother.” Of his youth we know virtually nothing: he traveled widely in the United States, somewhere acquired an education rare for a black person in that day, and developed an inveterate hatred of slavery and racism in all their manifestations. And yet we know much: in Wilmington, he and his mother would have been required by a law passed the year of his birth to wear a patch of cloth with the legend “FREE” upon their left shoulders. They were forbidden to testify against whites in court, could not gather in meetings without suspicion that they were planning insurrection, and constantly lived in fear that, marked by their “FREE” patches, they would be kidnapped and sold off as slaves. No surprise, then, that in the 1820s, Walker moved north, settling in Boston, where he became a dealer in new and used clothing.

In the few remaining years of his life there, Walker was one of the most active members of Boston’s small community of free black people. He was assiduous in the Methodist church, sheltered fugitives, shared the little he earned with the poor, married a young woman named Eliza, and frequently spoke out in public against slavery. In 1827, he became an agent for the newly formed Freedom’s Journal, which he distributed and wrote for. He issued his Appeal in 1829; by the next year, he was dead.

The cause of his death was unclear, though in his day such an early death was not unusual. Still, the suspicion lingered that he had been poisoned. Such speculation was fired by the intense responses to his Appeal. A price of $1,000 dead and $10,000 alive was put on his head in Georgia. The Governor of Georgia wrote to the Mayor of Boston demanding that he suppress circulation of the Appeal; the Mayor of Savannah requested Walker’s arrest. Laws were passed across the South banning its distribution and reasserting the policy against teaching slaves to read or write. Even whites opposed to slavery, like Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison, condemned the pamphlet as “injudicious” and inflammatory. Nevertheless, the tract continued to circulate, occasionally, it would seem, in the pockets of clothing that Walker sold to sailors shipping to southern ports. Before Walker’s death, it had gone into three editions, each more militant, and it continued to be reprinted and circulated for many years after.

Why was—is—the Appeal so thoroughly provocative? In the first place, it utterly breaks in language, tone, and strategy with the moderation that had largely characterized the anti-slavery movement. It rejects an approach emphasizing moral suasion, or an appeal to the religious sentiments of whites. Indeed, it attacks the supposed Christianity and liberalism of white America, including that of founding fathers like Jefferson. It affirms the citizenship of black people in the Republic, scorning the central notion of the colonization societies that black Americans should remove themselves to Africa. And it calls upon blacks to unite—not a popular concept among assimilationists of his day—to take action, in the extreme case, to kill or be killed if that proves necessary to achieve liberation. A century before these ideas were widely diffused, it invokes pride in being black, hope in militancy, not servility; in a certain sense, it is the first expression of black nationalism placed into print in the United States.

Walker’s work should not, however, be taken as a diatribe against all whites. In the course of the four “Articles” which constitute the full text of the Appeal, he expresses gratitude toward the white Americans “who have volunteered their services for our redemption. . . .” “Though we are unable to compensate them for their labours,” he writes, “we nevertheless thank them from the bottom of our hearts, and have our eyes steadfastly fixed upon them, and their labors of love for God and man.” And while he denounces colonization as a “plot,” he appeals to “our friends who have been imperceptibly drawn into this plot.” He views them “with tenderness, and would not for the world injure their feelings”; he has “only to hope for the future, that they will withdraw themselves from it. . . .”

Still, it is one of the ironies of our history that Patrick Henry’s cry—“Give me liberty or give me death”—evokes intense sentiments of patriotism; whereas, David Walker’s assertion—“Yea, would I meet death with avidity far! far!! in preference to such servile submission”—has evoked primarily fear.
Paul Lauter
Trinity College

In the Heath Anthology
from the Coloured Citizens of the World (third edition, 1829) (1829)

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Complete text of Walker's book.

David Walker
A brief biography.

Secondary Sources

Henry Highland Garnet, "A Brief Sketch of the Life and Character of David Walker," in both Aptheker and Arno texts

Donald M. Jacobs, "David Walker: Boston Race Leader, 1825-1830," Essex Institute Historical Collections, 107 (January, 1971), 94-107

Sterling Stuckey, "David Walker: In Defense of African Rights and Liberty," Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, 1987