51 David Walker (1796-1830)

Kenyon Gradert

Introduction: David Walker

David Walker (1796-1830) was a prominent black antislavery activist, orator, and writer from Boston. Though neglected by most literary scholars until the 1980s, Walker was among early America’s most terrifying writers. When his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World – a fiery pamphlet demanding black resistance to slavery – was published in 1829 and smuggled into Southern states, white Americans feared that the work would spark a mass slave insurrection. Southern authorities scrambled to recover copies of the pamphlet, and Georgia’s legislature even barred black sailors (suspected of transporting the work) from entering state ports. Yet the Appeal continued to spread. When Nat Turner led America’s bloodiest slave rebellion in 1831, many blamed Walker and the abolitionist allies who promoted him. After the Civil War, America’s most renowned black abolitionist Frederick Douglass reflected that Walker’s Appeal “startled the land like a trump of coming judgment.”[1]

Though his father was a slave, Walker was born free in North Carolina, inheriting his mother’s freedom according to the American legal tradition of partus sequitur ventrem (“the offspring follows the womb”). As he entered adulthood, Walker moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he became active in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a predominantly black and activism-oriented denomination founded in 1811 by Methodist minister Richard Allen. By 1825 Walker settled in Boston, where he worked as a used clothing salesman and activist in its black populace, centralized on the north side of Beacon Hill.

This tightly-knit community offered Walker new venues for activism. He became a member of the May Street Church led by Samuel Snowden, a fugitive slave and Methodist minister who urged his congregation to support the Underground Railroad. Walker also joined Boston’s Prince Hall Freemason Lodge; like the AME, this black organization split from segregationist white Masons and offered another venue for black community. Walker was also a member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, an explicitly activist organization formed in 1826 to combat Northern racism and Southern slavery.

Walker entered the literary world as a salesman and writer for Freedom’s Journal (1827-1829), the United States’s first black newspaper. Through his occasional columns and speeches, passionate yet polished, Walker soon grew into one of Boston’s leading black antislavery voices. But Walker truly entered the national stage when he let loose with the raw anger of his Appeal. The pamphlet’s full title hints at its audience and its revolutionary aims: Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829. Black and white antislavery voices had existed in North America since the 17th-century, but Walker’s Appeal was unique in speaking directly to a global black audience more than to white elites.

Equally novel – and startling to the average white reader – was the militancy of Walker’s message to his black compatriots. “The man who would not fight under our Lord and Master Jesus Christ,” Walker declared, “ought to be kept with all of his children or family, in slavery.” Many past readers were appalled by Walker’s use of Christ to justify violence, while later readers have noted how he anticipates liberation theology in this regard.  The text resides somewhere in the middle, containing a tension between revolutionary and nonviolent Christianity. In one breath Walker refuted white accusations of black bloodlust by invoking Christian submission — “does not vengeance belong to the Lord…without our interference, unless we are ordered?” — while in the next he praised “the God of battles” and urged militant resistance: “look upon your mother, wife and children, and answer God Almighty; and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.”

Walker also spoke directly to white America, and with a message that was unprecedented in its prophetic wrath. “”Unless you speedily alter your course,” Walker warned, “you and your Country are gone!!!!!! For God Almighty will tear up the very face of the earth!!!” Walker worked with and praised white abolitionists (especially “the great, the good and the god-like Granville Sharp, Wilberforce, Lundy”), yet he differed from prior black writers and activists like Phillis Wheatley in declaring that America was a white nation in which blacks currently had no place, writing “your” rather than “our country.”[2] Even radical white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison – who ran no less than nine pieces on Walker’s Appeal in his influential abolitionist periodical The Liberator – were unnerved by such rhetoric. As a resolute pacifist, Garrison rejected Walker’s support of armed rebellion, yet he countered these convictions with a stronger belief in free speech, especially for black Americans.

Less than a year after the Appeal, Walker died in summer 1830; some blamed a proslavery assassination plot, but it was likely tuberculosis. Yet his work lived on, reigniting national tensions over slavery and catalyzing the second wave of the abolitionist movement. Fellow Bostonian Maria Stewart – whom one scholar calls America’s “first Black feminist-abolitionist” – described the experience of reading Walker’s Appeal as a second conversion, sparking her own antislavery writing in the late 1830s.[3] Before and after the Civil War, Frederick Douglass would fashion his own identity (and in turn, a national platform) upon Walker’s most famous injunction: “Are we MEN!!–I ask you, O my brethren! are we MEN?”  Into the 20th-century W.E.B. DuBois came to own a first-edition of the Appeal and lauded it as the first “program of organized opposition to the action and attitude of the dominant white group.”[4] These voices and more urged America to reevaluate the legacy of one of its fiercest prophets, and scholars have since admitted Walker to his rightful place in the canon of American literature. His message of moral earnestness, human dignity, and the self-assertion of an oppressed people still resonates in our own era.

Further Reading

Hinks, Peter P. To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Lea, Darris. “The Effects of David Walker’s Appeal and Nat Turner’s Insurrection on North Carolina.” M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1969.

Sinha, Manisha. “Black Immediatism.” The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. Yale University Press, 2017.

Sistrom, Michael. “Summary of David Walker’s Appeal.” Documenting the American South. University of North Carolina. http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/summary.html.


  1. "Our Destiny Is Largely in Our Own Hands: An Address Delivered in Washington, D.C., on 16 April 1883," The Frederick Douglass Papers, 5:68-69
  2. Originally a speech before the Massachusetts General Colored Association. Reprinted in Freedom's Journal, December 19, 1828.
  3. William Andrews, Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century, Indiana University Press, 1986.
  4. Jennifer Schuessler, “Emory Acquires W.E.B. DuBois’s Copy of Rare Early Abolitionist Appeal,” The New York Times, March 7, 2016, https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/emory-acquires-w-e-b-duboiss-copy-of-rare-early-abolitionist-appeal/. Quote from DuBois, “Dusk of Dawn,” 1940.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature by Kenyon Gradert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book