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Definition: Walker, David from Chambers Biographical Dictionary

1785-1830

US abolitionist

Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son of a free black mother and a slave father, he settled in Boston in the 1820s and became active in the abolitionist movement. In 1829 he published his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, a denunciation of slavery in which he urges slaves to overthrow the system. It created outrage in the South, and many states passed laws banning such "seditious" material. A year later he was found dead under mysterious circumstances.


Summary Article: David Walker's Appeal
from The SAGE Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America

The activities of Africans who resisted enslavement were often diverse and intense. These 19th-century activists ranged from Africans who were born free, such as David Walker, to formerly enslaved Africans such as Harriet Tubman. In Walker can be found the example of African deep thought, and knowledge of the world beyond the shores of the United States. In James Turner's view, the Appeal “was the most seminal expression of African American political thought to come forth in the early nineteenth century…. Walker presents the first sustained critique of slavery and racism in the United States by an African person” (Turner, 1993, p. 9). Jacob Carruthers even argues that Walker was able to clarify the European ethos through an examination of the wisdom of the Africans of ancient Egypt.

Biographical Sketch

Walker was born legally free in Wilmington, North Carolina, on September 28, 1785, to a free mother and an enslaved father. He observed the atrocities of slavery and the brutal treatment of enslaved Africans in the plantation South and felt he would not live long if he stayed there. In the late 1820s, Walker moved north to Boston, Massachusetts. A religious and educated man, Walker devoted his life to studying the Bible and slavery throughout the world, to interstate travel, and to uplifting his people. His liberties were threatened daily during a time when slave owners viewed free men of African descent as a threat to slavery and a source of a to slavery and a source of agitation.

Walker's Appeal

David Walker was a self-proclaimed “half-free” African in America. He felt, however, that he was closer to enslavement than to freedom; hence his “half-free” self-designation. In 1829, he published 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.

The 30,000-word Appeal was organized similarly to the U.S. Constitution. It included a preamble, in which Walker predicted his death as an expected outcome of the Appeal's distribution, and four articles:

  • Article I—Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Slavery,
  • Article II—Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Ignorance,
  • Article III—Our Wretchedness in Consequence of the Preachers of the Religion of Jesus Christ, and
  • Article IV—Our Wretchedness in Consequence of the Colonizing Plan.

Walker's knowledge of the Declaration of Independence provided him motivation, especially the following words:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them [people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

For Walker, it was his “duty” to his brethren, to his country, and to his God to write the Appeal in order to awaken in his beloved, afflicted, degraded, and slumbering brethren a spirit of enquiry and investigation regarding their common miseries and wretchedness in the “Republican Land of Liberty.” The language and vision of the Appeal rendered Walker a major initiator of the era of militant abolitionism and Black reform in North America.

David Walker's Appeal was an uncompromising attack on the enslavement of Africans. Moreover, it was a call to revolt for Africans who were enslaved and for aid and support from those who were not. The Appeal was made to enslaved and other Africans around the world, to the “tyrant” masters, and to the spirit of Thomas Jefferson and all other natural enemies. To his readers he wrote: “I count my life not dear unto me … for what is the use of living when in fact I am dead.” The book made Walker a marked man. According to Benjamin Brawley, a reward of $10,000 was placed on Walker's head. Ten times that amount was offered if Walker were taken alive. The legislatures of the states of Louisiana and Georgia passed laws against the Appeal. North Carolina passed a law that made it a crime to teach an enslaved African to read.

Slavery, Ignorance, Religion, and Colonization

Walker felt African descendants were unnecessarily submissive to “gangs of white men.” When he compared slavery since antiquity throughout the world to the bondage system in the United States, he found none more inhumane than the latter. Walker believed it was the personal responsibility of African descendants to refute Thomas Jefferson's theory of their natural intellectual inferiority and his racist comments in Notes on the State of Virginia regarding their “unfortunate difference of colour.”

A major audience of the Appeal was educated free coloreds whose aid Walker sought to utilize in order to enlighten his less-learned brethren. Peter P. Hinks stated that Walker believed the educated members of each Black community would be the linchpins to uplift and mobilize the masses of African descendants. In this way, Walker sought to prove to the world that Blacks were men and not brutes, knowing full well that enlightened Africans terrified the supporters of slavery; indeed, he wrote, “The bare name of educating the coloured people scares our cruel oppressors almost to death” (Walker, 1830, p. 37). Walker knew that many Christians in the United States were convinced that God made Africans to be enslaved to them and would do all they could to keep Africans ignorant.

Catholic priests initiated the spread of slavery from Africa to the New World, and many Southern preachers supported slavery practices. Christian Americans beat slaves nearly to death if found praying, and they ignored the Golden Rule when it came to perpetuating abject slavery of Africans to ensure their own capital gain. Walker admonished Americans to repent and reform in the name of the Lord or suffer ruination and destruction. The use of religion to attack slavery and to defend Black rights pervades the Appeal, according to Peter Hinks. Although Africans were converted to Christianity, some religious traditions of Africa were retained, especially their belief in the power of the priest or medicine man. Walker's use of priestly language addressed the deep-rooted spiritual values of enslaved Africans, and it communicated with Whites as well. This jeremiad approach employed written structures of African oral traditions and supported Walker's intentions that the Appeal be read aloud to groups—or, in other words, listened to in the form of passionate preaching.

Walker argued that the blood and tears of Africa's sons and daughters had enriched America and, therefore, denounced participation in the migration scheme of slaveholders and the American Colonization Society (ACS) to remove and reposition free colored men to Liberia and to separate them from their enslaved brethren. Walker sternly cautioned that no man should budge one step and be beaten out of his country, property, and home, but should examine the Satanic plot and see it as a trick to maintain slaveholders’ stability and economic prosperity.

In 1830, David Walker was found dead near his Boston-based second-hand clothing business. Many speculate foul play resulting from the contents and distribution of the Appeal. The Appeal fertilized the soil for later freedom fighters including Henry Highland Garnet, Martin Delany, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Malcolm X, and others who further developed African resistance strategies in North America.

See also Pan-African Nationalism; Slave Culture and the Development of Black Popular Culture

Further Readings
  • Apap, C. (2011). “Let no man of us budge one step”: David Walker and the rhetoric of African American emplacement. Early American Literature, 43(2), 319-350.
  • Asukile, T. (1999). The all-embracing Black nationalist theories of David Walker's Appeal. The Black Scholar, 4(16). doi:10.2037/41068837.
  • Brawley, B. (1975). David Walker. In Brawley, B. (Ed.), Early Negro American writers (pp. 123-146). Dover New York NY.
  • Carruthers, J. H. (1995). MDW NTR: Divine speech: A historiographical reflection of African deep thought from the time of pharaohs to the present. Karnak House London England.
  • Clarke, J. H. (1991). African world revolution: Africans at the crossroads. Africa World Press Trenton NJ.
  • Finseth, I. (2001). David Walker, nature's nation, and early African-American separatism. Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Cultures, 54(3), 337-363.
  • Hinks, P. P. (2000). To awaken my afflicted brethren: David Walker and the problem of antebellum slave resistance. Pennsylvania State University Press University Park.
  • Jarrett, G. (2011). “To refute Mr. Jefferson's arguments respecting us”: Thomas Jefferson, David Walker, and the politics of early African American literature. Early American Literature, 46(2), 291-318.
  • Turner, J. (1993). Introduction. In Walker, D. , Appeal (9-20). Black Classic Press. Baltimore MD.
  • Walker, D. (1830). David 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: Third and last edition, revised and published by David Walker, 1830. Retrieved from http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/walker.html. This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching, and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.
  • Charlotte E. Forté-Parnell
    Copyright © 2015 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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