David Walker was a black man, born free, but shackled by slavery, nonetheless. He was repulsed by every aspect of the institution and sought to bring it down through rebellion. He made the choice to be vocal about his opinions, despite great risk to himself. David Walker felt like the slaves should do the same. He was of the mind that it was better to be dead than to be a slave. Those of us who are not born into slavery have to agree. Once you have tasted freedom, nothing else on the menu will suffice.
David Walker was born sometime around 1785 in Wilmington, North Carolina. His mother was a free black woman and his father was a slave. Because David’s mother was free, David was lucky enough to escape slavery. His father did not; he died before David Walker was born.
Walker may have been born “free,” but that term meant very little to a black man in the United States at that time. Segregation and discrimination were rampant in most parts of the country. Additionally, in the South, slaves were seen on a daily basis. David Walker reportedly saw a slave boy whip his own mother to death on his master’s orders. To rebel and die was better than this, he thought.
David Walker eventually decided to leave the South. He “could not live where I must hear the slave’s chains continually and where I must encounter the insults of their hypocritical enslavers.” He traveled the states for some time before settling in Boston in the 1820s. He opened up a shop and found some like-minded people. He became an activist, a vocal abolitionist and a writer. He wrote for New York’s “Freedom Journal” and he wrote for himself. In 1829, he penned and published a pamphlet that made him infamous. It was known as “Appeal” or “Walker’s Appeal.”
Walker’s Appeal was everything that slave-owners in the South feared. It was passionate. It was well said. It was right on many occasions. Worst of all, it called for rebellion. It was an appeal to the slaves in the South to fight back against their captors. In it, David expounded on his idea that death and defeat were preferable to being enslaved. He distributed the pamphlet through sailors. It certainly had an effect on the slaves who it reached. Surely, some of them must have thought, “That’s easy for him to say. He’s never been whipped.” Others must have been amazed that a black man was standing up against the whites in such a way.
Predictably, the pamphlet was hated by slave-owners. Slaves were already undereducated, so it was a wonder they could read the thing at all. Nonetheless, authorities in North Carolina made it illegal to teach a slave to read. They also prohibited anti-slavery literature. Rewards were put up for the bringing of David Walker to the South or to his death. He could have moved to Canada to escape his enemies. Instead, he declared, “It is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation.”
The third and final edition of David Walker’s Appeal was published in June of 1830. Walker died in August of the same year. He was found dead in his house in Boston. There were no signs of violence, but rumors that he had been poisoned persisted. No one is certain, but it is possible that he contracted tuberculosis. He was roughly 45-years-old at the time of his death. His only son, Edward G. Walker would grow up to be the first black Massachusetts legislator.
David Walker, retrieved 9/29/10, pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2930.html
Inscoe, John C., David Walker, retrieved 9/29/10, docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/bio.html