David Walker (abolitionist)

David Walker (abolitionist)

David Walker (September 27, 1796 – June 28, 1830)[1] was an outspoken African American activist who demanded the immediate end of slavery in the new nation. In 1829, while living in Boston, Massachusetts, he published Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, a call to awaken other African Americans to the power of black unity and struggle.

Walker has generally not been recognized in primary and secondary textbooks for his contribution to ending chattel slavery in the United States, yet many historians and liberation theologians cite Walker’s Appeal as an influential political and social document of the 19th century.[2] They credit Walker for exerting a radicalizing influence on the abolitionist movements of his day and beyond. He has inspired many generations of black leaders and activists of all backgrounds.


Early career

David Walker was born to a free mother and an enslaved father in Wilmington, North Carolina. Growing up, he met a man who went by the name of G. Fraser who is said to have inspired Walker's angry and crude writing style.[3] As a young adult he moved to Charleston, a mecca for upwardly mobile free blacks. There he was affiliated with a strong African Methodist Episcopal Church community of activists. He visited, and likely then lived, in Philadelphia, a shipbuilding center, and, importantly, the home of a large free black community.

Move to Boston and subsequent career

Shaped by these and other experiences, Walker settled in Boston around 1825. He was drawn to the city as the seaport's Black community was expanding. In the Southeast, blacks regularly worked semi-autonomously in forestry, as boatmen, as skilled laborers in various occupations, both as free and enslaved persons. He recognized the power inherent in agency among both free blacks and those enslaved and immediately became active within the black community on the west side of Beacon Hill.

He operated a used clothing store near the wharves in the North End. Active in civic associations such as Prince Hall Freemasonry, the Massachusetts General Colored Association, and Rev. Samuel Snowden’s Methodist church, Walker also served as a Boston agent and a writer for the short-lived but influential Freedom’s Journal, a weekly abolitionist newspaper published in New York (this was the first newspaper published by blacks in the United States). In public speeches and in print articles, as well as The Appeal, Walker called for action to end slavery.

Although not free from discrimination from whites, black families in Boston lived in relatively benign conditions in the 1820s compared to other parts of the country. The state had unofficially ended slavery in a series of court cases at the end of the 18th century. The city was cosmopolitan, with a variety of trades and jobs available, and there was strong abolitionist activity among many blacks and whites. The level of black competency and activism in Boston was particularly high. As historian Peter Hinks documents: “The growth of black enclaves in various cities and towns was inseparable from the development of an educated and socially involved local black leadership.”[4]

The black community in Boston was friendly to newcomers and transients, helping support fugitive slaves, including those who wanted to move on to Canada. It welcomed free blacks from other areas.[5] Change-oriented, Prince Hall Freemasons took seriously their tenets and used them as the basis beginning in the 1780s for respect for blacks. They stood up against discriminatory treatment. Walker joined with those who repeatedly petitioned the Commonwealth for equal rights for all, often speaking publicly against slavery and racism as immoral.

Black cosmopolitanism embodied remnants of African traditions, the common experiences of slavery, and survivors’ advocacy in a hostile, discriminatory world. The community, centered around the African Meeting House, still standing on the north slope of Beacon Hill, demanded first-class citizenship. David Walker was among the founders of the Massachusetts General Colored Association; it opposed colonization.

Walker's Appeal (1829)

Walker intentionally structured his Appeal in the style of the United States Constitution. For Walker, black Americans were more American than Africans, having forged the country with their blood and toil.[6] Walker addressed his audience of Americans as two entities—one black and one white—and placed the enslavement of Africans in the United States in historical context. He argued that American slavery, in its brutality and its denial of the basic humanity of those enslaved, eclipsed the brutality of all other slave regimes.

As in his public speeches, Walker in his Appeal, challenged the racism evident at the time in “reforms” such as the rainbow color scheme by the American Colonization Society to deport all free and freed Blacks from the United States.[7] He specifically targeted the public assertions of black inferiority byThomas Jefferson, who died three years before the publication of his pamphlet. Walker planned to go after Jefferson's relatives for believing in the same ideologies. Walker recognized that a cohering racist ideology, articulated and encouraged by a man of Jefferson’s stature, posed a powerful long-term threat to the black community and to the promise of real democracy. As he explained, “I say, that unless we refute Mr. Jefferson’s arguments respecting us, we will only establish them.”[8]

Walker posited that Blacks had to assume responsibility not only for themselves but for one other. Those who were educated were urged to read the pamphlet to those who did not want to.[9] The Appeal aroused fears among white leaders, especially Southern slave owners. Various government bodies immediately labeled it seditious.[10]

Distribution of The Appeal

Two editions of the pamphlet were published within a year. Of the first edition (1829), only eleven copies are known to survive; one was bought in 2011 for the University of Virginia.[11] Walker distributed his pamphlet through various black communication networks along the Atlantic coast. These included free and enslaved black civil rights activists, laborers, black church and revivalist networks, contacts with free black benevolent societies, and maroon[12] communities.

By 1830, the pamphlet was everywhere. Savannah, Georgia instituted a ban on the disembarkation of black seamen. Some blacks were lynched, others whipped[citation needed]. Yet the document continued to circulate. The outrage over Walker's Appeal even led Georgia to announce an award of $10,000 to anybody who could hand over Walker alive, and $1,000 to anyone who would murder him.[13]

Walker died suddenly in the summer of 1830. Though rumors subsequently suggested that he was murdered, most historians believe Walker died a natural death from tuberculosis, as listed in Boston city records. The disease was rampant at the time and had claimed Walker’s only daughter the week before. Walker was buried in a South Boston cemetery area for blacks. His probable grave site remains unmarked.

“There is great work for you to do… 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.”

Walker, The Appeal, p 32

The Significance of The Appeal

The Appeal was written during the time of national debates about what to do about confiscation of slave property: the enslaved. Three months after Walker died, the Boston Evening Transcript noted that Blacks regarded The Appeal “as if it were a star in the east guiding them to freedom and emancipation.”

While no documentation suggests that the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831 was informed or inspired by The Appeal, anxiety among whites escalated amid continuing skirmishes with maroon communities, and other local organizing by slaves. William Lloyd Garrison, journalist, began publishing The Liberator in January 1831. The early weekly editions were full of discussions of The Appeal, with Garrison himself writing an editorial directly in favor of the work and its strong message of rebellion.[14]

Whites began to form national anti-slavery organizations in the 1830s. Already existing were more than 50 Negro abolitionist organizations “throughout the country having valuable experience and most eager to join forces with the newcomers.”[15] Thus The Appeal is viewed as radicalizing the national abolitionist movement.

Walker, The Public Intellectual

Walker was influenced by the strategies of resistance forged by individual rebels, maroon communities of runaway slaves, independent black church movement leaders, and more. As a fervent Protestant, he was well-used to ‘making a way out of no-way’. Walker read extensively. He displayed an insatiable thirst for finding ways out of oppression for all of African descent.

His reading of the Bible led to his judgment that no previous system of slavery in history was as oppressive as that experienced in America. In the United States dark skin was deemed by whites a signal of inferiority and non-humanity. He challenged critics to show him “a page of history, either sacred or profane, on which a verse can be found, which maintains that the Egyptians heaped the insupportable insult upon the children of Israel, by telling them that they were not of the human family.”[16]

David Walker’s courageous defiance was a marvel. He, along with his associates, believed that the “key to the uplift of the race was a zealous commitment to the tenets of individual moral improvement: education, temperance, protestant religious practice, regular work habits, and self-regulation.”[17] Walker took seriously the words of the Declaration of Independence. As a patriot he took issue with black exclusion from full participation in the new republic.

Walker asserted that whites did not deserve adulation for their willingness to free some slaves. As historian Peter Hinks has explained, according to Walker “[w]hites gave nothing to blacks upon manumission except the right to exercise the liberty they had immorally prevented them from so doing in the past. They were not giving blacks a gift but rather returning what they had stolen from them and God. To pay respect to whites as the source of freedom was thus to blaspheme God by denying that he was the source of all virtues and the only one with whom one was justified in having a relationship of obligation and debt.”[18]

Local papers in the South such as the Richmond Enquirer railed against Walker’s “monstrous slander” of the South.[19] The fear of free blacks in particular, and all of African descent in general, multiplied.

It is important to remember that no national anti-slavery movement existed at the time The Appeal was published. Certainly individuals and groups existed with differing degrees of commitment to equal rights for black men and women.[20] Walker’s militancy played a pivotal role in solidifying a white abolitionist movement that, in the main, found Walker too strident in his evangelical approach, yet prescient in his attack on chattel slavery.

As historian Herbert Aptheker writes, “[t]o be an Abolitionist was not for the faint-hearted. The slaveholders represented for the first half of the nineteenth century the most closely knit and most important single economic unit in the nation, their millions of bondsmen and millions of acres of land comprising an investment of billions of dollars. This economic might had its counterpart in political power, given its possessors dominance within the nation and predominance within the South.”[21]

The Appeal heightens our understanding of the pernicious effects of both slavery and the subservience of and discrimination against free blacks, who threatened the existing racial order by confounding the notion that to be black was to be enslaved. Those outside of slavery were said dismissively to need special regulation “because they could not be relied on to regulate themselves and because they might overstep the boundaries society had placed around them.”[22]

David Walker has often been regarded as an abolitionist with Black Nationalist views. This popular opinion stems from his opposition to slavery. Walker's Appeal advocates equality between blacks and whites in the United States. He threatens white slaveowners by warning them of revenge seeking slaves. If slavery is not abolished, or if the treatment of slaves is not improved, a revolt could be in the near future.

Scholar Thabiti Asukile wrote The All-Embracing Black Nationalist Theories of David Walker’s Appeal. His piece analyzes and summarizes the works of historian Sterling Stuckey. In Stuckey’s The Ideological Origins of Black Nationalism, he highlights that Walker, “cries for his people to rise up and destroy their oppressors.”[23] Stuckey is right; in Walker’s Appeal he states, “Our sufferings will come to an end, in spite of all the Americans this side of eternity. Then we will want all the learning and talents, and perhaps more, to govern ourselves.”[24] Here, Stuckey addresses the issue that Black Nationalism did not exist during Walker’s lifetime, but he believes, “Walker’s Appeal would become an ideological foundation…for Black Nationalist theory.”[25]

Scholar Chris Apap shares similar views to Stuckey’s in his work, “Let no man of us budge one step”: David Walker and the Rhetoric African American Emplacement. Apap emphysizes Walker’s statement, “Never make an attempt to gain freedom or natural right, from under our cruel oppressors and murderers, until you see your ways clear; when that hour arrives and you move, be not afraid or dismayed.”[26] Here it seems Walker is warning the black citizens of the United States to wait until they feel the time is right for a revolt, and reassuring that using force is necessary. After all, whites have been using force to enslave blacks. In the text, Walker goes on to say that Jesus Christ will surely go before the oppressed that are trying to overthrow the slave owners. The Black Nationalist party supported black power; Walker is clearly encouraging a shift in power from whites to blacks in this piece of his work. Some historians have interpreted Walker’s words based on the Biblical meaning of, “be not afraid or dismayed.” As Apap points out, “‘be not afraid or dismayed’ is a direct quote from 2 Chronicles 20.15, where the Israelites are told to ‘be not afraid or dismayed’ because God would fight the battle for them and save them from their enemies without their having to lift a finger.”[27] All the Israelites are expected to do is pray. Walker however says, “you move”; “when that hour arrives and you move, be not afraid or dismayed.”[28] Apap insists that because Walker says, “you move”, “Walker’s God is more the lord of hosts of the Old Testament than the forgiving God of the New Testament whose followers turn the other cheek.”[29] The Old Testament says that war is initiated and led by God. This can be seen in such passages such as Exodus 17:16, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation” and Numbers 31:3, “Arm some of your men to go to war against the Midianites and to carry out the LORD's vengeance on them.”

The public has often noted that many of David Walker’s views were radical. Both Sterling Stuckey and Chris Apap present strong evidence suggesting that David Walker supported Black Nationalist ideologies.

While scholarly sources cite David Walker’s Appeal, public schools in the United States have generally ignored this text in their core curricula[citation needed].

“This country is as much ours as it is the whites, whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by.”

Walker, Article IV, p. 58

For the progress of the race: The lasting influence of Walker's Appeal

The spirit of David Walker lives on. Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, Frederick Douglass, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, The Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, liberation theologians and many more have respectfully followed in David Walker’s footsteps. Echoes of Walker’s Appeal can be heard most vividly, for example, in Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.”[30]

Aptheker writes: “Walker’s Appeal is the first sustained written assault upon slavery and racism to come from a black man in the United States. This was the main source of its overwhelming power in its own time; this is the source of the great relevance and enormous impact that remain in it, deep as we are in the twentieth century.

Never before or since was there a more passionate denunciation of the hypocrisy of the nation as a whole – democratic and fraternal and equalitarian and all the other words. And Walker does this not as one who hates the country but rather as one who hates the institutions which disfigure it and make it a hissing in the world.”[31]


  • Apap, Chris. “’Let no man of us budge one step’: David Walker and the Rhetoric African American Emplacement.” Early American Literature 46.2: 319-350. PDF file.
  • Aptheker, Herbert. 1965. “One Continual Cry”: David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829-1830): Its Setting and Its Meaning. Humanities Press.
  • Asukile, Thabiti. “The All-Embracing Black Nationalist Theories of David Walker’s Appeal.” The Black Scholar 29.4 (1999): 16-24. PDF file.
  • Eaton, Clement. 1936. “A Dangerous Pamphlet in the Old South,” Journal of Southern History, 2, pp. 512–534.
  • Hahn, Steven. 2009. Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom. Harvard University Press.
  • Harding, Vincent. 1981, There Is A River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. Vintage Books
  • Hinks, Peter P. 1997. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. Pennsylvania State University Press
  • ____, Ed. 2000. David Walker’s Appeal To The Coloured Citizens of The World. Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Horne, Gerald. 1988. Thinking and Rethinking U.S. History, Council on Interracial Books for Children.
  • Horton James Oliver; Horton, Lois E. 1997. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. Oxford University Press.
  • ____ Eds. 2006. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American History. The New Press.
  • Johnson, Charles; Smith, Patricia; WGBH Series Research Team. 1998. Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery. Harcourt, Brace and Company
  • Mayer, Henry. 1998. All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and The Abolition of Slavery. St. Martin’s Press.
  • Mitchell, Verner. 2002. “David Walker, African Rights, and Liberty,” in Trotman, C. James, Ed., Multiculturalism: Roots and Reality. Indiana University Press.
  • Sesay, Chernoh Momodu. 2006. Freemasons of Color: Prince Hall, Revolutionary Black Boston, and the Origins of Black Freemasonry, 1770—1807. Dissertation, Northwestern University.
  • Walker, David. 1829. Walker’s Appeal in Four Articles. D. Walker.
  • Zinn, Howard, 2003. A People’s History of the American States: 1492 to the Present. Harper Collins Publishers.

See also

  • List of African-American abolitionists


  1. ^ Historians differ on the date of birth for David Walker. The Certificate of Death filed in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is listed in the Registry of Births, Marriages, and Death, City of Boston Index of Death, 1801-1848, page 300
  2. ^ Norton Anthology of African American Literature
  3. ^ David Walkers Biography pg 34
  4. ^ Hinks, Peter P., 1997, p.94
  5. ^ “For Black Bostonians, and many northern African Americans, mobility and the search for social support underlined the transition from slavery to freedom.” See Sesay, Chernoh Momodu. 2006. Freemasons of Color: Prince Hall, Revolutionary Black Boston, and the Origins of Black Freemasonry, 1770—1807, Dissertation, Northwestern University
  6. ^ Whitewashing Civil War History
  7. ^ http://www.answers.com/topic/david-walker-s-appeal
  8. ^ Walker, David, The Appeal, p. 18.
  9. ^ http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/menu.html
  10. ^ Crockett, Hasan (2001). "The Incendiary Pamphlet: David Walker's Appeal In Georgia". The Journal of Negro History 86 (3): 1. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1562449. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  11. ^ nickjr.com
  12. ^ See Hahn, 2009, Chapter 1 for a persuasive discussion of maroon communities of self-emancipated people of African and Creole descent.
  13. ^ Zinn, Howard, 2003. A People’s History of the American States: 1492 to the Present, pp.180
  14. ^ Garrison, William. "Editorial Regarding Walker's Appeal". The Liberator. PBS: Africans in America Resource Bank. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2929.html. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  15. ^ Aptheker, p.36
  16. ^ Walker, p.12
  17. ^ Hinks, p.85
  18. ^ Hinks, pp.220-221
  19. ^ Aptheker, 1965, p.1
  20. ^ See Aptheker 1965 for discussion on this point
  21. ^ Ibid, pp.18-19
  22. ^ Hinks, p.204
  23. ^ Asukile, p.18
  24. ^ Walker, p.26
  25. ^ Asukile, p.19
  26. ^ Walker, p.22
  27. ^ Apap, p.331
  28. ^ Walker, p.22
  29. ^ Apap, p.331
  30. ^ See http://www.masshumanities.org/?p=douglass
  31. ^ Aptheker, p. 54

External links

Walking Tours

The National Park Service, Boston African American National Historic Site, offers walking tours in Boston, MA. of the Black Beacon Hill community that include comprehensive narratives concerning David Walker and his audacious pamphlet. An online version of the tour is also available. See [1]. Contact 14 Beacon Street, Suite 401, Boston, MA 02108, 617-742-5415

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