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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 602

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Somewhere in this small cemetery lies the unmarked grave of David Walker.

Walker was born free in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1796. His father, who died before Walker was born, was a slave and his mother was free. As slavery in children depended on the status of the mother, which usually paid off for slaveowners, he was therefore free. He grew up around slavery and was furious about it. As a teenager, he moved to Charleston, where he was involved in the free black community there. He became associated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was a beacon of black activism from its beginning. He moved to Philadelphia at some point. By 1825, he was in Boston.

Walker opened a used clothing store in his new home, where he gave whatever aid he could to runaway slaves and other poor free blacks there, as well as probably some poor whites. He got into trouble in 1828, being tried, along with two other used clothing merchants, for tracking in stolen property, but we don’t know the outcome of the case. Walker became known for speaking out publicly about not only the evils of slavery but the horrors of racism in his adopted city and throughout the nation. He rapidly rose to become one of the leading voices in Boston’s black community. He was involved in the Prince Hall Freemason organization, the black Masons that became a foundation of activism after the American Revolution. He also co-founded the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which was a group that fought against the racist colonization schemes to send black people back to Africa that were so popular among supposedly liberal whites of the age. He also wrote for the New York paper Freedom’s Journal, one of the earliest black-owned papers in the country, during its brief run in the late 1820s.

Most notably, in 1829, Walker wrote 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, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829. This pamphlet, more commonly known as Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, was intended to be sent to slaves to urge them to resist their masters and fight for their freedom. In it, he lambasted racism and slavery, noted the hypocrisy of the men who wrote the Constitution, and took apart the intellectual and biblical justifications for racism common at the time. He urged all black people to resist and put the onus on them to do so, saying uplift, moral behavior, and militancy were required. Like DuBois and then Albert Murray and really so many black intellectuals many decades or well over a century later, he called African-Americans the most American of all Americans, stating, “America is more our country, than it is the whites — we have enriched it with our blood and tears.” Christianity must be purged of its racism by black leaders teaching whites what was correct. Black education had to be a high priority to prove to whites that their opinions about the inherent inferiority of blacks was wrong. He also lambasted those slaveholders who gave slaves their freedom, saying that all they were giving was what they were not right to be able to give and that without further compensation, the future for them was just poverty and discrimination.

To say the least, the South freaked out over this. Walker used his many connections among sailors, a common profession for free blacks, to spread the pamphlet into the South. It soon fell into the hands of whites. To stop its distribution, Savannah passed a new law not allowing black sailors off ships. People possessing the Appeal were arrested in Charleston and New Orleans. Georgia offered a $10,000 award for Walker alive and $1,000 for him dead. And yet, the pamphlet spread rapidly. It was influential too. Whether Nat Turner knew of it is unknown, but his form of resistance is exactly what Walker called for. William Lloyd Garrison rejected the calls to violence Walker used, but was absolutely influenced by his radicalism. Frederick Douglass was strongly influenced by Walker’s ideas; he was a huge supporter of John Brown three decades later.

Alas, Walker would not live to see any of this. He died in 1830, probably of tuberculosis, which had killed his young daughter only three weeks earlier. He was 33 years old. His son Edward would become the first black state legislator in Massachusetts, in 1866.

David Walker is buried in Hawes Burying Ground, Boston, Massachusetts, a common resting place for that city’s 19th century African-American community.

If you would like this series to cover other participants in the Black Freedom Struggle, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Henry Highland Garnet is buried in Monrovia, Liberia, where he died after James Garfield named him minister to the country, although some say his body was returned and he is in Baltimore, and Elizabeth Jennings, who sued New York in the mid-1850s over discrimination on streetcar lines, is in Brooklyn. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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