I’ve pulled my discussions of Black History into January because of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, which was this past week. Today, King is thought of as an African American freedom fighter. However someone like King does not appear out of thin air. The trajectory of this freedom fighting can be traced back through Marcus Garvey, back through to Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and back through to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. For the typical American that is as far as the trajectory goes in understanding the path of Black Nationalism. However, the line gets cut off at that point because of PR. Let me explain. I think some are forgotten or overlooked because there are no pictures to post when Black History Month comes around. Therefore, we don’t know or pay attention to those who came before Frederick Douglass. But Douglass, whom I’ve discussed before, has a precedent. David Walker.
David Walker was born of a union of a male slave and a female free woman in North Carolina sometime at the end of the eighteenth century. Given the law of the child following the condition of the mother, this meant Walker was free. He grew up educated by his mother, since his father had died before his birth. Even so, he was able to witness slavery closely and he resolved never to forget the conditions under which his father toiled. Remember that he was growing up in North Carolina, a state that’s always held up as an example of a progressive slave-holding state.
When his mother died, Walker spent a small amount of time in South Carolina, and connected with Denmark Vessey for a time, but left before Vessey got into trouble for his thwarted rebellion. Walker went north to Boston where he connected with the Black abolitionists there who used the power of the pen to join in the fight. In 1829, he wrote An Appeal to the Coloured Citzens of the World. In his treatise, he discussed slavery as an abject horror and derided the people who took part in it as “greedy” and “hypocritical.” With stunning argumentative skills, he demolished the notion of the institution as justifiable and characterized slaves as “wretched and degraded.”
As anyone might imagine, Walker’s words did not sit well with Southern slave holders. He ran a second hand clothing shop on the docks and to get the word out further, he would sew copies of his treatise into the clothes of sailors going out to sea. The sailors would discover the work, read it since they had nothing else to do, and come back from sea all ready to fight to abolish slavery. The sailors would also pass the book on to slaves in Southern ports who would pass the text on to those who were literate. Literate Blacks verbally related the contents to others and a fire was started.
Some slaveholders thought Walker needed to be stopped and they gathered to put a price on his head. One summer morning in 1830, the very next year, after An Appeal was published, Walker, aged 33, was discovered in the doorway of his home—dead. His death certificate says he died of tuberculosis. After all, his young daughter had died of it the week before and he must have caught what she had.
People today believe that no one stood against slavery because no one teaches Walker’s fiery words in schools, which gives the incorrect impression that resistance against slavery did not exist for a long time. David Walker used his unique position in the world to speak out. The most successful abolitionist in Boston at the time, his example remained strong for his family. His son, Edward Walker became the first Black man elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature. I believe David Walker paid the ultimate price for his fiery words. We must note his example and remember it today.