Tuesday, September 18, 2007

David Walker

David Walker is a somewhat mysterious 19th century American figure who, like many of the figures that appears in this blog, almost no one reads or talks about outside of the occasional college class. In a recent ethnically diverse class of 75 I asked the students if they have heard of him. Only 1 student had, and she had learned about him in an African-American history class. I would have been too disgusted to ask how many had heard of Snoop Dog.

It's not like Walker did something so dramatic that I can’t believe he is not better known. He didn’t rescue anyone or save the country from the Brits. He wasn’t even an escaped slave like Frederick Douglas, who had a sensational and high profile speaking and writing career. He was just an emotional and outspoken voice that must have inspired a lot of slaves, and definitely inspired the best known and perhaps most important white abolitionist outside of John Brown. He also scared the grits out of a lot of slave owners during our country’s dark ages, and that’s always a good thing. To do it, Walker merely wrote a fairly short “Appeal,” which was harshly critical of all its targets – black or white Americans.

By trade, he was a big Northern city retailer with a flame thrower for a pen, born in Wilmington, North Carolina, probably three or four years before the turn of the century. No records tell us exactly when or where. Although his father was a slave, his mother was free. Under the law, such as it was, that made him free too. He left Wilmington while a young man, possibly for the reason that the high number of slaves made it difficult for him to find any work. Or, perhaps, he yearned to breathe freer air. Or, still again, maybe he just had that youthful wanderlust.

So, when he was old enough, he wandered around, already able to read and write. He settled in Charleston, South Carolina for a while, possibly getting there in 1821 (just to set the table; James Monroe is president; Western civilization in the U.S. pretty much ends in St. Louis, Lincoln was a pre-teen, and abolitionists are gaining courage and strength). If he was in Charelston in ’21 and ‘22, it is quite possible that he took part in a failed insurrection by a carpenter with the enticing name of Denmark Vesey and his associate, the magician, Gullah Jack, in 1822. Based on Walker’s later writings, it is hard to believe he would not have participated, were he given the opportunity, although there is no telling when he began to feel passionate about the issue. But, he was not one of the roughly 60 convicted or roughly 40 hanged when the insurrection was put down.

By 1825, Walker had made it to Boston, Massachusetts, which had been a free state since 1783. Free or not, of course, Boston’s blacks were not given the same opportunities as whites in many aspects of life such as, for example, sitting on juries or holding government positions. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of legal and de facto segregation, including in the school systems. Walker settled in a black enclave and opened up a used clothing store which would play a roll in his future attempt to liberate the slaves.

While in Boston he married and had a child, a girl, and was once arrested for receiving stolen property. He successfully defended the case, and seemed to be well known and respected, even in some white society. At the same time, he became very engaged in the abolitionist movement, then primarily a black endeavor.

When Samuel Cornish and John Russworm began publishing Freedom’s Journal, the first known black newspaper in the United States (which lasted only a year), Walker became their Boston agent. He actively supported the journal and occasionally contributed to it, as well as to Cornish’s later and even briefer effort.

Despite the brevity of the papers’ success, they essentially made Walker a known player in Boston abolition circles and brought him into contact with many other like minded men. In 1828, he made a speech to the Massachusetts General Colored Association which prefigured his much longer (but still relatively short) and more fiery Appeal.

The following year, he decided to make use of his business contacts in the maritime world and successfully began smuggling his Appeal, copies of which were sewn into the linings of the clothing he shipped. Walker’s shop was close by the docks and he apparently would ask simply sailors to help spread his work.

Blacks had for a long time been able to move far more freely in the nautical world than in the States. Not surprisingly, their work in that line aroused the fear in white society that there ability to maintain a semblance of normal life would help spread sedition. Soon after the Vesey affair mentioned above, South Carolina even legislated the incarceration of Black sailors until the ship left its dock.

Despite a somewhat rambling style and many literary and foreign attributions (which made one wonder how an illiterate slave, his audience, would possibly understand it) Walker’s spells his message out clearly. No society had ever treated its slaves as badly; blacks need to wake up and fight for their rights; Christianity and the Declaration of Independence demand the freeing of the slaves and blacks to be given rights; God would see to the fall of the white devils. I have to wonder if the young Malcolm X had read Walker. He would have liked him.

Walker threw historical figures, peoples and events around in the Appeal like Republican presidential candidates throw around President Reagan references. In the first two paragraphs of the Appeal, he makes references to the slaves of Egypt (Israelites), Rome and Sparta (the Helots), Jesus Christ, and the writers Josephus and Plutarch. Shortly thereafter, in a single paragraph he refers to the Pharaoh’s troops drowning in the Red Sea, the Helots again, the Spartan lawmaker, Lycurgus, the Roman tyrant, Sulla, Cataline, Caesar, Mark Anthony, Octavius, Lipidis, Brutus, Cassius, Tiberius, Mohammed II and the conquest of Constantinople, not to mention the Spaniards and the Portuguese in general. It’s almost like a prose crossword puzzle with an historical theme.

I disagree with those experts who believe that Walker predicted the Civil War (which would hardly be that difficult, as slavery had been a divisive issue since our country’s inception) but he did point out that it is not the oppressed who always end up raising the standard, but the oppressors who split apart and kill each other.

It is possible that Walker was himself influenced by a much shorter publication the year before he issued The Appeal. The author was Robert Young and entitled the Ethiopian Manifesto. Young wrote:

“As came John the Baptist, of old, to spread abroad the forthcoming of his master, so alike are intended these our words, to denote to the black African or Ethiopian people, that God has prepared for them a leader, who awaits but his season to proclaim to them his birthright. How shall you know this man? By indubitable signs which cannot be controverted by the power of mortal, his marks being stamped in open visage, as equally so upon his frame, which constitutes him to have been particularly regarded in the infinite work of God to man…..”

Walker was no Christ, although the Appeal is as much about the justice of God as anything else, but he may have had a little John the Baptist in him. It is difficult to ascertain Walker’s effect, short as it was. The next year Nat Turner had his hand at a failed insurrection. Inspired by Walker? There is no doubt that the Appeal was widely circulated in the South and there were even a few arrests for its distribution. Southern legislatures tried to enact and sometimes succeeded in passing anti-literacy laws in response to the Appeal and it is reported that at least some slaves were killed or sold when caught reading it. More direct proof of its effect is not known.

Walker was well aware of the effect his little book was having. He wrote as a footnote in the following edition – “”Why do the Slave-holders or Tyrants of America and their advocates fight so hard to keep my brethren from receiving and reading my book of Appeal to them . . . But why are the Americans so very fearfully terrified respecting my book . . . Now I ask the Americans to see the fearful terror they labor under for fear that my brethren will get my Book and read it . . . “.

One Northern preacher was slow to appreciate Walker. William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the most famous of all abolitionist writers, originally criticized Walker as too extreme, but when he began publishing The Liberator, he apparently "got it" and republished Walker’s Appeal. Given Garrison’s fame (or infamy in some places), that was some tribute.

In giving you a sample of Walker’s work, I will just open the book and type wherever my finger points. It landed at a blast against blacks, quite a popular topic with him:

“It shows at once, what the blacks are, we are ignorant, abject, servile and mean-- and the whites know it-- they know that we are too servile to assert our rights as men—or they would not fool with us as they do. Would they fool with any peoples as they do with us? No, they know too well, that they would get themselves ruined. Why do they not bring the inhabitants of Asia to be body servants to them? They know they would get their bodies rent and torn from head to foot. Why do they not get the Aborigines of this country to be slaves to them and their children, to work their farms and dig their mines? They know well that the Aborigines of this country, or (Indians) would tear them from the earth. The Indians would not rest day or night, they would be up all times of night, cutting their cruel throats. . . .”.

If that sounds tough on blacks, trust me that he was harder on whites (“Is the U.S. not the most tyrannical, unmerciful and cruel government under Heaven” and “Algerines, Turks and Arabs treat their dogs a thousand times better than we are treated by the Christians”).

But here is another of Walker’s view on his own people from a slightly different viewpoint:

“. . . If you can only get courage into the blacks, I do declare it, that one good black man can put to death six white men; and I give it as a fact, let twelve black men get well armed for battle, and they will kill and put to flight fifty whites.—The reason is, the blacks, once you get them started, they glory in death. The whites have had us under them for more than three centuries, murdering, and treating us like brutes; and, as Mr. Jefferson wisely said, they have never found us out . . . “.

There were rumors that there was a price on Walker’s head at the time, with a higher price if he was kidnapped and spirited to the South. One Southern mayor had even asked Boston’s mayor to do something about Walker (he declined, although he didn't approve of Walker either).

The Appeal initially had a fairly short life, three editions, over the course of a year or so, when Walker mysteriously died a few days after his only child passed away. Suspicions were of course raised, but no charges were ever brought. Murdered? If so, it was not done in dramatic way which would send a message. I’m guessing no.

Walker’s little work is nearly 190 years old. It’s nice to know that just this year the City of Wilmington put up a plaque for him. It is likely that most people walk by it without having any idea of who he was. Yet, the great Frederick Douglass, a young man when the Appeal was published, declared it one of the most important abolitionist works. That’s a pretty good endorsement.

Indeed, how many pamphlets can you think of, however little read then or now, that have been printed over and over for two centuries? Tom Paine’s Common Sense and precious few others. That is a testament to greatness.


  1. Isn't Charleston in South Carolina? At the risk of sounding like a lawyer, too much speculation, not enough known facts. Though, as always, I salute your promotion of the little known and the "underdog".

  2. Okay, once again, my lack of proofreading powers prove second only to Ray Charles'. Of course, Charleston is in South Carolina. I'll fix it, but leave the comment to document my flaw. I always say you are like having my own personal proof-reader. Too bad you can't read my briefs before I send them in.

    As to the "too much speculation" about Walker that's what you get when historical figures aren't that well known in their own time and record keeping as to blacks at the time was spotty, at the very best. The mysteries as to his life aren't the point; the Appeal, its effect and enduring legacy are. But I think you have inspired another post.

  3. Anonymous10:33 AM

    Whose Ray Charles?
    Betcha he's no Snoop Dog.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .