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David Walker’s Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Put a Price on his Head

A clothing storeowner in Boston wrote a 24-page pamphlet on Sept. 28, 1829 that may have done as much to spark the Civil War as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Walker's Appeal

Walker’s Appeal

‘Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together.’ So beseeched Walker in his stirring call to resistance, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World and Expressly to the Coloured Citizens of the United States. It is popularly known as David Walker’s Appeal.

Walker demanded an immediate and universal end to slavery in the pamphlet. It was a bitter attack on the hypocrisy of America and a call for revolt – violent, if necessary – against white oppression. No one had dared go that far.

This little book produced more commotion among slaveholders than any volume of its size that was ever issued from an American press,” wrote an early biographer, Henry Garnet. Laws against it were passed in the South, and a price was put on Walker’s head – first $3,000, then $10,000 if he could be delivered alive to the South. In the North, his writings stiffened the spines of the abolitionists. William Henry Garrison took a more militant tone after David Walker’s Appeal was printed.

Little is known of Walker’s early life. He was probably born on Cape Fear in North Carolina. Garnet claims his mother was free and his father was a slave, but died several months before David was born. Whatever the case, he was free, and as a young man he moved to Charleston, S.C., looking for work. He then moved to Philadelphia and ended up in Boston around 1825.

Walker married Eliza Butler, and from 1827 to 1829 they were tenants at 81 Joy Street on Beacon Hill, where free blacks clustered. In 1829 he bought a house on Bridge Street from George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin whose murder in 1849 would lead to a sensational trial.  Walker agreed to pay Parkman $266 – a huge sum for him – for six years. Prophetically, he observed that “in this very city, when a man of color dies, if he owned any real estate it most generally galls into the hands of some white persons.” His widow lost the house after his death.

Edward WalkerWalker opened a used clothing shop on Brattle Street near the wharves, picking that location for a reason. He distributed his pamphlet to sailors and ship stewards, many of whom were black and called on the ports of New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington. In his store he bought clothing from sailors who needed cash and resold it to sailors who needed clothes for upcoming voyages. He could easily sew his pamphlet into the lining of the clothing.

The pamphlet was in its third printing in the summer of 1830 when Walker died suddenly at home. Many believe he was poisoned by his enemies, but evidence suggests he died of tuberculosis, as his young daughter had just died of the disease.

His son Edward Walker became the first African-American lawyer in Boston, and in 1866 became one of the first two elected to the state Legislature. When his father was alive, African-Americans could not hold elected office.

Note: An earlier version of this posting contained an image that was incorrectly identified as David Walker. It has been removed.

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