David Walker (1797?-1830) was a courageous and visionary African American leader and activist. He put his life on the line by publicly demanding the immediate end of slavery in the newly established nation of the United States.
Walker has exerted lasting influence on the ongoing struggle for equal rights and racial justice in the U.S. During his lifetime, he pushed other abolitionists to be bolder and more radical in their thinking and actions. And through the years his ideas have inspired many generations of Black leaders and activists of all backgrounds.
Walker was a leader in the African American community in Boston, Massachusetts. He is best known for writing and distributing a pamphlet called David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. This was a passionate espousal of black liberation; a call to his “afflicted and slumbering brethren” to rise up and cast off the chains that bound their minds as well as their bodies.
An evangelical Christian, Walker was a deeply religious man. In his Appeal, he takes white Christians to task for supporting slavery and its savage and unchristian treatment of fellow human beings. Such treatment was not only inhumane, Walker asserted, it was also hypocritical: after fighting for emancipation from Britain and founding a nation based on equality, white Americans continued to enslave and degrade Black people throughout the Republic.
The Appeal was published at a time of growing resistance to slavery. Free Black communities were expanding, and slave rebellions were on the rise. Walker used underground networks to circulate copies of his pamphlet throughout the South. This effort has been called “one of the boldest and most extensive plans to empower slaves ever conceived” in the U.S. before the Civil War.
David Walker was born a freeman in Wilmington, a small port in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina in or around 1797 (his exact date of birth is in dispute). His mother was a free person, his father was a slave. (According to the laws of the time in North Carolina, and in most other Southern states, a child born to a slave mother “belonged” to the mother’s owner; a child born to a free mother, no matter if the father was enslaved, was legally free.)
Growing up, Walker witnessed the cruelty of whites towards those with darker skin color. Slaveholders in the Wilmington area often made an example of rebellious escaped slaves: after capture, they were executed and their severed heads placed on long poles on land directly across from the town’s main wharves.
But the young David Walker was also exposed to the strong culture of slave resistance, and of the talents, resourcefulness and independence of Blacks. The backbone of the economy, slave labor made the region a major producer of shipbuilding supplies, lumber and rice. Slaves in Wilmington were famed throughout coastal North Carolina as building designers, carpenters, masons, plasterers, and sometimes – in the case of free Blacks with slave crews – as contractors. They also earned a reputation as excellent river pilots who guided ships safely into port.
Walker moved to Charleston, South Carolina when he was a young adult. It was a place that offered more opportunities for free Blacks to earn a living and build a better life. In Charleston, he joined an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church that had a strong community of activists. Independent Black churches were centers of mutual support and resistance to slavery. It is likely that Walker was exposed to – and may have had some part in – a failed plot led by a fellow church member, Denmark Vesey, to launch a slave rebellion in Charleston in 1822.
Walker’s familiarity with the cruel and oppressive conditions of slavery was not confined to the Carolinas. By his own account, he traveled widely in the South and West before moving back east to Philadelphia. The city was home to many free blacks and fugitive slaves. It was also the base of the AME Church and its leader, Bishop Richard Allen, a man Walker greatly admired.
The only existing memorial to David Walker is this plaque
David Walker played a prominent role in Black civic institutions. These included the Prince Hall Freemasonry, the Massachusetts General Colored Association, and the Methodist church of the Rev. Samuel Snowden, a strong anti-slavery activist who had been a slave in the South. Walker also served as a writer, key supporter and Boston subscription agent for the New York-based Freedom’s Journal. The Journal was the country’s first African-American owned and operated newspaper and an important source of information and ideas for Walker. Although it was only published for two years, the paper was effective in promoting support for slave resistance and the abolitionist cause. It also helped Northern Black leaders share ideas and work together to defeat a plan of the American Colonization Society (ACS) to deport free Blacks in the U.S. to a proposed new colony in West Africa.
By the late 1820’s, free Black leaders and activists in Boston and other Northern cities shared a growing belief in the need for unity and collective action to end slavery. David Walker expressed this view with passion in public speeches, in printed articles, and in the Appeal.
An advertisement (above) for Walker’s used clothing store and his listing (right) as a sales agent for the newspaper appear in the last issue of Freedom’s Journal, published on March 28, 1829.
David Walker was a galvanizing force in the abolitionist movement. From it earliest days in the late 1700’s, abolitionism had been an almost entirely Black affair, led by Black churches, the Prince Hall Masons and other Black associations like the Massachusetts General Colored Association. Their purpose was twofold: to protest actively against the evils of slavery and to challenge white-supported polices of segregation so that the free Blacks of Massachusetts could achieve full equality.
The abolitionist movement gained public visibility and limited support among whites after William Lloyd Garrison, a white man, began publishing The Liberator, a weekly anti-slavery newspaper, in Boston in 1831.
Garrison, who later helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society, echoed David Walker’s call for the immediate emancipation of slaves and racial equality across American society. He came to this “immediatist” position – as opposed to the idea that slavery should be phased out gradually – in part because of the influence of David Walker. Garrison had previously championed the ACS proposal to resettle free Blacks in a new colony in Africa. This was something Walker strongly opposed because it was racist in nature, and denied the possibility of equality rights and citizenship for Blacks. Moreover, it would solidify slavery’s hold by sending troublesome Blacks out of the country.
Garrison gave prominent and largely favorable coverage to Walker and his work in the first six months of The Liberator’s publication. No less than nine articles – some of them lengthy – appeared in the newspaper between January and June 1831. This certainly earned Garrison credibility with the Black community, which Garrison relied on for most of his readers and for critical moral and financial support. But it also indicates Garrison’s respect for Walker’s convictions, and for the deep allegiance to Walker felt by Blacks in Boston and in the North.
Other white abolitionists dismissed Walker’s Appeal as a violent call for Black revenge. As a pacifist, Garrison was certainly troubled by the language it contained. But he noted that although “we have repeatedly expressed our disapprobation of its general spirit, nevertheless it is not for the American people…to denounce it as bloody or monstrous…If any people were ever justified in throwing off the yoke of their tyrants, the slaves are that people.”
The relationship between William Lloyd Garrison and Black Bostonians spurred the growth of the abolitionist movement. And, according to historian Donald M. Jacobs, Garrison took some of his most important early cues from David Walker. Walker’s “goals and hopes and aspirations for his people were, among other things, an effort to make sure that Boston abolitionism would not bear an all-white stamp. For blacks and whites working separately and together not only would begin but also would continue to have an impact upon the brand of abolitionism that would endure over the years in Boston.”
The Hawes Burying Ground in South Boston,
The Walkers’ one surviving son, Edwin Garrison Walker, was born a few months after his father died.
Mrs. Walker later married Alexander Dewson, a recent arrival from Hawaii. The Dewsons together raised Edwin Garrison Walker who later married Hannah Jane Van Vronker from Lowell, Massachusetts.
Edwin Garrison Walker became a lawyer and father of two children. In 1866, he was the first African American to be elected to the Massachusetts legislature. In 1893, Republican Governor Benjamin Franklin Butler nominated Edwin G. Walker to be justice of the Charlestown, MA District Court. The nomination, the first for an African American, was rejected by the Governor’s Council. Edwin G. Walker died on January 12, 1901 in Boston.
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