The whites have had us under them for more than three centuries, murdering, and treating us like brutes. They want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us in order to subject us to that wretched condition — therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed. Now, I ask you, had you not rather be killed than to be a slave to a tyrant, who takes the life of your mother, wife, and dear little children? Look upon your mother, wife and children, and answer God Almighty; and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.
Excerpt from David Walker’s “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.” Written in Boston, Massachusetts, September 28, 1829.
David Walker was born on September 28th, 1785 in Wilmington, North Carolina to a free African woman and an enslaved African man. David Walker was born a free person because it was the law throughout North America that children inherited the status of their mother. This law ensured that Africans retained slave status because it was very rare for an African woman to gain her freedom. Most free Africans were men who were skilled in a trade, were “rented” out to work for people other than their “owners,” where they were allowed to keep part of their wages and eventually bought their freedom. There were occasions where the “master” promised that an enslaved African could buy his freedom and reneged on that promise after the unfortunate “slave” paid the agreed sum of money. Moses Grandy whose life story is documented in the book “Narrative of the Life of Moses Gandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America,” was cheated by three white men after he paid each of them the agreed price for his freedom. The father of Sylvia Stark, one of the pioneer women of British Colombia, was also cheated by his “owner” after he paid the man the agreed price for his freedom. In Ontario, the case of Peggy Pompadour who was sold along with her son Jupiter in 1806 is evidence of the children of Africans in North America inheriting the status of the mother. Peggy Pompadour was married to a free African man but she and her children were owned by Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Peter Russell and his sister Elizabeth Russell.
Even free Africans in North America were at the mercy of their white compatriots. In some states (e.g. Delaware and California) any white person could claim that a free African was their slave and the African would not be allowed to counter that claim because they were not allowed to give evidence against a white person. In California this law was extended to include anyone who was not white being prevented from giving evidence against a white person. In 1854 the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a white man, George Hall in the murder of Ling Sing, a Chinese man because the three witnesses who had testified were all Chinese. The law stated that African Americans, mulattoes and Native Americans could not give evidence against white people and since Chinese were not white they were included in the group who could not testify against white people in a court of law. George Hall was set free even though he was guilty of murdering Ling Sing.
David Walker as a free African living in an American slaveholding society was therefore not entirely free. He witnessed the degradation of Africans and the injustices to which they were subjected. He wrote about the horror of witnessing an enslaved African man forced to whip his mother to death by a sadistic slaveholder. Walker eventually left the Southern state where he was born because as he said, “If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long. I cannot remain where I must hear slaves' chains continually and where I must encounter the insults of their hypocritical enslavers.”
Walker traveled throughout the USA then settled in Boston where he opened a clothing store close to the waterfront. Many of his customers were sailors whose patronage would be very important in his most important venture. Walker became a member of organizations that denounced the enslavement of Africans in the Southern states and the discrimination to which Africans in the Northern states were subjected. He was a regular contributor to the abolitionist newspaper, Freedom’s Journal and by the end of 1828; he had become Boston's leading agitator against slavery.
On September 28th, 1829 he published a pamphlet in which he urged enslaved Africans to fight for their freedom; he advocated that they seize their freedom by any means necessary, including violence. “Walker’s Appeal” was considered militant because of his denunciation of slavery, those who profited from it, and those who willingly accepted it. To reach his target audience, the enslaved men and women of the South, Walker relied on African American sailors who worked on ships that traveled to the southern states. Walker used his clothing business which, because of its location close to the waterfront, was patronized by sailors who bought clothing for upcoming voyages. He sewed copies of his pamphlet into the lining of sailors' clothing. Once the pamphlets reached the South, they could be distributed throughout the region.
Slaveholders already worried by the success of the Haitian Revolution were panicking because an African man had articulated what they feared most, a violent uprising of enslaved Africans in America. The white slave holders were not the only people who panicked when they read “Walker’s Appeal.” In 1829, when 50 copies of “Walker’s Appeal” were delivered to an African American minister in Savannah, Georgia, the minister informed the police. The police informed the governor of Georgia which led to the state legislature passing a bill making the circulation of materials that might incite slaves to riot a capital offense. The legislature also offered a reward for Walker’s capture, $10,000 alive and $1,000 dead. Other Southern states took similar measures. Louisiana enacted a bill ordering the expulsion of all free Africans who had settled in the state after 1825. By 1830, white authorities in the Southern states had begun a campaign to suppress “Walker’s Appeal.” In New Orleans, four black men were arrested for owning it and vigilantes attacked free Africans in Walker's home town, Wilmington, North Carolina. In Savannah, Georgia, the white authorities seized dozens of copies and banned African American sailors from going ashore at the city's port. The mayor of Savannah demanded that the mayor of Boston arrest Walker and outlaw the pamphlet. White slave holders offered a $3,000 bounty for Walker's death, and a $10,000 reward for anyone who brought him to the South alive. In June 1830, shortly after publishing the third edition of his “Appeal,” David Walker was found dead on the doorstep of his home.
David Walker also opposed the resettlement of freed Africans (in Liberia and Sierra Leone) who had been enslaved in America. He articulated his reason in these words; “Let no man of us budge one step, and let slave-holders come to beat us from our country. America is more our country, than it is the whites, we have enriched it with our blood and tears. The greatest riches in all America have arisen from our blood and tears: and will they drive us from our property and homes, which we have earned with our blood?”
David Walker’s words, written 178 years ago are of value today. “Ignorance, my brethren, is a mist, low down into the very dark and almost impenetrable abyss in which, our fathers for many centuries have been plunged...
When we take a retrospective view of the arts and sciences—the wise legislators—the Pyramids, and other magnificent buildings—the turning of the channels of the river Nile, by the sons of Africa or of Ham, among whom learning originated, and was carried thence into Greece, where it was improved upon and refined. Thence among the Romans and all over the then enlightened parts of the world, and it has been enlightening the dark and benighted minds of men from then, down to this day. I say, when I view retrospectively, the renown of that once mighty people, the children of our great progenitor I am indeed cheered. Yea further, when I view that mighty son of Africa, Hannibal, one of the greatest generals of antiquity, who defeated and cut off so many thousands of the white Romans or murderers and who carried his victorious arms, to the very gate of Rome, and I give it as my candid opinion, that had Carthage been well united and had given him good support, he would have carried that cruel and barbarous city by storm. But they were dis-united, as the coloured people are now, in the United States of America, the reason our natural enemies are enabled to keep their feet on our throats.
Ignorance and treachery one against the other—a grovelling servile and abject submission to the lash of tyrants, we see plainly, my brethren, are not the natural elements of the blacks, as the Americans try to make us believe.
Men of colour, who are also of sense, for you particularly is my APPEAL designed. Our more ignorant brethren are not able to penetrate its value. I call upon you therefore to cast your eyes upon the wretchedness of your brethren, and to do your utmost to enlighten them—go to work and enlighten your brethren!—Let the Lord see you doing what you can to rescue them and yourselves from degradation.”
Written in September 2007