David Walker’s objective was nothing short of revolutionary. He would arouse slaves of the South into rebelling against their master. His tool would be his own pamphlet, David Walker’s Appeal. . . , a document that has been described as “for a brief and terrifying moment. . ., the most notorious document in America.”
The son of a slave father and a free black mother, David Walker was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, perhaps in 1796 or 1797. In accordance with existing laws, since his mother was a free black, David Walker was also free. This freedom, however, did not shield him from witnessing firsthand the degradations and injustices of slavery. He witnessed much misery in his youth, including one disturbing episode of a son who was forced to whip his mother until she died. Walker travelled throughout the country, eventually settling in Boston. But even in that free northern city, with its prevalent discrimination, life was less than ideal for its black residents. Still, Walker apparently fared well, setting up a used clothing store during the 1820s.
In Boston, Walker began to associate with prominent black activists. He joined institutions that denounced slavery in the South and discrimination in the North. He became involved with the nation’s first African American newspaper, the Freedom’s Journal out of New York City, to which he frequently contributed. By the end of 1828, he had become Boston’s leading spokesman against slavery.
In September of 1829 he published his Appeal. To reach his primary audience — the enslaved men and women of the South — Walker relied on sailors and ship’s officers sympathetic to the cause who could transfer the pamphlet to southern ports. Walker even employed his used clothing business which, being located close to the waterfront, served 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. Walker also sought the aid of of various contacts in the South who were also sympathetic to the cause.
The Appeal made a great impression in the South, with both slaves and slaveholders. To the slaves the words were inspiring and instilled a sense of pride and hope. Horrified whites, on the other hand, initiated laws that forbade blacks to learn to read and banned the distribution of antislavery literature. They offered a $3,000 reward for Walker’s head, and $10,000 to anyone who could bring him to the South alive. Friends concerned about his safety implored him to flee to Canada. Walker responded that he would stand his ground. “Somebody must die in this cause,” he added. “I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation.” A devout Christian, he believed that abolition was a “glorious and heavenly cause.”
David Walker published a third edition of his Appeal in June of 1830. Two months later he was found dead in his home. Although there was no evidence supporting the allegation, many believed that he had been poisoned. Later scholarship suggests he died of tuberculosis, the same disease that killed his daughter.