An African-American clothing store owner named David Walker 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.
‘Treat us like men, and there is no danger but we will all live in peace and happiness together.’ So beseeched David 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. He bitterly attacked the hypocrisy of America and called 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. Southern states passed laws against the pamphlet, and soon David Walker had a price on his head. At first he was worth $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 the printing of David Walker’s Appeal.
We know little of the childhood of David Walker. 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 had his freedom. As a young man he moved to Charleston, S.C., looking for work.
But then he decided to head north, having seen enough of violence and slavery. “If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long.. . . This is not the place for me, ” he wrote. “I must leave this part of the country.”
He moved to Philadelphia and ended up in Boston around 1825. He began to write for Freedom’s Journal, the first national newspaper owned by African-Americans.
Walker married Eliza Butler, and from 1827 to 1829 they rented rooms 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 falls into the hands of some white persons.” His widow lost the house after his death.
Walker 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. Typically they called on the ports of New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington.
In his store, David Walker 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 itself drew from the Bible and included many references to history. It reveals its author as highly literate and well-educated, if mostly by himself.
In it, David Walker refuted Thomas Jefferson’s arguments about the inferiority of black people in Notes on the State of Virginia.
He pointed out Jefferson’s hypocrisy in writing the Declaration of Independence. He compared the language in the document ‘with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us.’
David Walker also questioned whether the revolutionaries had suffered wrongs under Great Britain ‘one-hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical’ as those endured by enslaved African-Americans.
He also denied that blacks wished to change the color of their skin.
Whites think because they hold us in their infernal chains of slavery, that we wish to be white . . . but they are dreadfully deceived — we wish to be just as it pleased our Creator to have made us.
The pamphlet had gone through its third printing in the summer of 1830 — a year after its initial publication — when Walker died suddenly in his home. Many believe his enemies poisoned him. Evidence, however, 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. During his father’s lifetime, 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. This story about David Walker was updated in 2019.