Perspectives: David Walker

Freedom Center Voices

Perspectives: David Walker

Born in Wilmington, N.C. of a free African American mother and an enslaved father, David Walker (c.1798 – 1830) was considered legally free. Slavery followed the condition of the mother, not the father. Even though he was techincally free, he still observed the horrors of enslavement. As a young child, he watched as a son was forced to whip his mother.

Walker traveled throughout the North as a young man, but eventually settled in Boston by 1825 and opened a used clothing store. He married Eliza Butler in 1826 and they had two children, Lydia and Edward. Lydia died before her second birthday, but Edward would become one of the first African Americans elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1866.

Walker’s real passion, however, was for ending enslavement. He joined anti-enslavement groups (Massachusetts General Colored Association), wrote for the country’s first black newspaper (Freedom’s Journal), and became known for his eloquent speaking against enslavement. He was also associated with the Prince Hall Freemasonry.

In 1829 he wrote and published a pamphlet called Appeal, a radical call to African Americans to rise up in revolt against slave owners.  His Appeal was intended to spark a flame in abolitionists and show all Americans the hypocrisy that slavery presented in a country where “all men are created equal.”

“The man who would not fight under our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in the glorious and heavenly cause of freedom and of God--to be delivered from the most wretched, abject and servile slavery, that ever a people was afflicted with since the foundation of the world, to the present day--ought to be kept with all of his children or family, in slavery, or in chains, to be butchered by his cruel enemies.”

Walker used his clothing store to spread the message, sewing copies of his pamphlet into the lining of sailors’ clothes. The sailors sympathetic to his cause could then distribute the pamphlets all across the South. Reaction to his Appeal was swift. Outraged slaveholders helped pass laws forbidding African Americans to learn to read and banning the spread of anti-enslavement pamphlets. The state of Georgia issued a $10,000 reward for Walker’s capture.

Even though his supporters begged him to flee to Canada, Walker refused, saying “Somebody must die in this cause. I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation.”

On August 6, 1830, shortly after a third edition of his pamphlet was published and one week after his daughter died of tuberculosis, David Walker passed away.  His Appeal however, continued to inspire people to fight against enslavement. From Nat Turner to John Brown, the idea of ending enslavement through violence became a common theme.  In the end, David Walker was right. It took violence, the Civil War, and the death of over 600,000 human beings to finally bring an end to enslavement.

David Walker’s legacy continued to live on through the Black Nationalist Movement and through individuals like Martin R. Delany, Malcom X, Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis. Malcom X aggressively spoke out against racism, and gaining equality “by any means necessary.” Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis proudly marched down streets with rifles and shotguns in hand, showing the country they were not afraid to use violence to defend themselves against racist attacks. Even today, organizations like Black Lives Matter, continue to answer Walker’s call for self-resilience and self-determination. David Walker’s Appeal and its ideology will continue to resonate for generations to come.

James Harrington

Manager of Interpretive Services
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Posted in Uncategorized.