David Walker was the black son of an enslaved man and a free black woman. He was born around 1785 in Wilmington, North Carolina. His father died before he was born, but he was free because of his mother’s status. Nonetheless, he was strongly affected by slavery. Even though he was not a slave, he sympathized with the plight of those who were. He chose to write one of the most impassioned and earliest anti-slavery pamphlets in the United States. It is known simply as, “David Walker’s Appeal.”
Like all people in the South at the time, both black and white, slavery was a glaringly obvious institution for David. He was privy to all that was slavery and the toll it was taking on blacks. Even free blacks were treated poorly in many areas and this fact did not escape David’s notice. David left North Carolina and traveled in the states for a while before settling in Boston in the 1820s. During his time traveling, he realized that even states where slavery was not much of an issue, there was still an attitude of complacency. This was as offensive to David Walker as slavery itself. And so, in 1829 Boston, David Walker wrote his Appeal.
In the first paragraph of David Walker’s Appeal, he states, “we (coloured people of the United States) are the most degraded, wretched, and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began.” Walker may have been wrong in that assertion; there is no way to know. However, it is obvious that he truly felt the “coloured people of the United States” were being treated unjustly and he was correct in that assumption insofar as equality of humans is concerned.
David Walker went on in his Appeal to speak about the insult of whites suggesting that blacks were not human. In so many words, he entreated blacks to challenge this idea, for that was the only way he saw for blacks not to be supporting the claim with their inaction. “Are we not men?” he asks. “Did our Creator make us to be slaves?” “How could we be so submissive to a gang of men . . . ? He was obviously appalled by the fact that the slaves were not fighting back against their masters as a group. He wanted to see his people rise up and free themselves from their plight.
Unfortunately, as we know today, racism breeds racism. The way many whites treated blacks tainted the way David Walker saw white people in general. In Appeal, he says, “The whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.” “America is more our country than the whites-we have enriched it with our blood and tears.” He goes on to say, “My colour will yet, root some of you out of the very face of the Earth.” He was quite correct in that assertion. However, he would not live to see the day.
Appeal made it to the slave states and into the hands of slaveholders very quickly. The slaveholders were furious and understandably nervous. This sort of publication could incite rebellion; the very thing David Walker clearly hoped for. In some areas where slavery was popular, everything was done to keep Appeal out of the hands of blacks. Teaching blacks to read became illegal. Rewards for David Walker, dead or alive, were offered. Walker became an infamous man. That did not stop him from continuing to distribute Appeal and to revise it three times before his death on June 28, 1830.
David Walker died under “mysterious circumstances” at his home in Boston. There was supposedly no sign of illness, but none of violence either. Rumors he was killed with poison were rampant. There is simply no way to be sure now. Nonetheless, modern historians believe David Walker may have died from tuberculosis. Whatever the cause of death, it is certain that Walker left a lasting impression in the United States.
Walker, David, Appeal, retrieved 10/27/10, pbs.org/wgbh/ala/part4/4h2931t.html