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Black Wilmington Abolitionist
Cape Fear Historical Institute
David Walker was a Wilmington-born author of an antislavery pamphlet first published in September of 1829 as
“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.”
The pamphlet, considered very dangerous and which encouraged violent slave uprisings and racial warfare, was banned in the South and those guilty of distribution of the paper were severely punished.
It was said that “even the leading anti-slavery voices, Benjamin Lundy
and William Lloyd Garrison…criticized Walker’s pamphlet for its
menacing tone” and visions of Saint-Domingue-like massacres. His
writings were overtly racist and characterized white people as “an
unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood thirsty set of beings
always seeking after power and authority…in fact, take them as a body, they are ten times more cruel, avaricious and unmerciful than ever (the heathens) were.” He referred to the American Constitution as “a
murderous government, and threatened that “we shall, under God,
obtain our liberty by the crushing arm of power.”
Early Life of Walker:
he is believed to have been born in or near Wilmington about September 28, 1785 to a free mother and slave father who died before his birth.
He grew up as a free black given his mother’s legal status as free, and according to his own writings “left Wilmington as a literate young man
and wandered around the United States, residing for an unspecified
period in Charleston.” By 1825 (according to the City Directory) he
had settled in Boston where he operated a successful used clothing enterprise first at the City Market, and then on Brattle Street in 1828
near the waterfront, selling his wares to visiting seamen.
In 1826 he married the daughter of a prominent black family,
Eliza Butler. They lived in the Beacon Hill black district, a segregated
part of Boston and had a daughter.
In 1828, Walker and two other used clothing dealers were tried for trafficking in stolen goods, though it is unknown if or how he was punished for the crime. Either he was part of a theft ring or encouraged thieves to ply their trade and offered good prices for the stolen goods.
Walker's Call For Violence:
submission of black people, and aimed his wrath at segregated
Northern churches in particular.
Ironically, Walker saw Thomas Jefferson as a role model for liberty,
given his views on human equality expounded in the Declaration of Independence, but he either did not read or understand Jefferson’s views on the impossibility of the two races living in harmony together in one land. This blinded Walker in his attacks upon the American Colonization Society and its efforts to repatriate black people to the continent they were taken from by English and New England slave traders; nor could he understand the meaning of the political equality contained in the United States Constitution. Walker further claimed that due to the labor of slaves, “America is more our country than it is the whites---we have enriched it with our blood, sweat and tears.”
According to Sean Wilentz, a 1965 editor of Walker’s Appeal, the abolitionist railed against white Americans and told his black readers that they were their “natural enemies,” and that the issue would eventually
“lead to a bloody cataclysm.” Walker “envisioned a black uprising, or series of uprisings that would slay the oppressors and “root them out,”
in his words.” Walker saw God sending a mighty general like Hannibal
to lead the liberated blacks to righteous glory and liberation from
In 1830, “The Appeal” drew a serious response from the mayor of Savannah who wrote to Boston Mayor Gray Otis to put a stop to the incendiary tracts emanating from his city, but Gray, himself denouncing
the pamphlet, insisted that no laws had been broken. In North Carolina,
the governor wrote to the police chiefs of all towns and legislators of all
the eastern counties, to guard against violent slave insurrections as a consequence of the pamphlet reaching his State; and the next session of
the North Carolina General Assembly passed “An Act to Prevent the Circulation of Seditious Publications.” Author William Powell states
that “the excitement among whites soon spread to Fayetteville, New Bern, Elizabeth City and other towns in the State, particularly where news of the pamphlet was accompanied by rumors of slave insurrection plots
scheduled to take place at Christmas.”
Sadly, the humanitarian efforts toward manumission in the South were
a casualty of radical abolitionists like Walker, and the bloody Nat Turner revolt in Virginia in August 1831 stopped the voluntary emancipation practice completely. As Walker was a free black, white Southerners
now viewed that category of black person with great suspicion, with
all black persons coming into North Carolina by ship to be quarantined, and no contact allowed “between resident blacks and incoming ships.” During the heat of the excitement, a free mulatto man approached a Mr. Usher of Washington, North Carolina, with news that the slaves of the eastern part of the State were preparing to rebel on the 4th of October.
He then named a certain Dave, a slave of Thomas K. Morissey, sheriff
of Sampson County as a leader, and stated that “the Negroes in Sampson, Duplin and New Hanover, were regularly organized and prepared to rise.” Dave was arrested, tried, and convicted. After his conviction, he made
a confession to his master and named the leaders in the plot. It was stated that “their object was to march by two routes to Wilmington,
spreading destruction and murder on their way.
At Wilmington they expected to be reinforced by 2,000 slaves,
supply themselves with arms and ammunition, and then return.”
Panic among the whites reached the point of hysteria. Dave and another slave Jim were immediately executed. By the middle of September thirty Negroes were in jail in Duplin County awaiting trial, twenty-five in Sampson, and fifteen in Wilmington. Other slaves had been whipped
and released. Thousands of militia were under arms, and,
the panic continued even as far west as Raleigh.
What White Americans Feared:
The Saint-Domingue Massacre:
“In French-ruled Saint-Domingue (Haiti)…the blacks…gradually understood the strength in numbers and harbored the sparks of insurrection. In August 1791, northern plantation headman Boukman
used the informal network of voodoo priests and ritual to acquire the support of some 40,000 slaves” ---they sought revenge as well as freedom, and once the revolution had been unleashed, they raped, tortured and
killed white residents at will, while pillaging and destroying white-owned property. It was not long before the only order that existed was commanded by roving bands of slaves, and much of the northern plains
of Saint-Domigue were in flames. In the end, 20,000 of the 30,000 white residents ---men, women and children---were massacred or had fled; 10,000 of the 40,000 mulattoes had been killed, and more than a third of the 500,000 slaves were dead.
see, was that the slave leaders of Saint-Domingue had acquired a taste
for blood that would spread. “They had learned that might makes right,
that ends justified the use of virtually any means, and that grievances were susceptible to instant redress by violence. For ten years (1791-1801),
the population, corrupt enough before, had been trained in bloodshed
and soaked in violence.” As he was aware of the Saint-Domingue horror, David Walker must have seen this as part of America’s future.
North Carolina, the Legislature in 1794 passed an “Act to prevent further importation and bringing of slaves,” etc. Even the body-servants of West India immigrants, and naturally all free Negroes were eventually prohibited” (DuBois). For white Americans in the 1830's the massacres, chaos and economic disaster that unfolded in Saint-Domingue since 1791 was a very stern lesson and explained why such strict controls were settled upon with so many black slaves in their midst, and people like David Walker to inflame racial passions.
but one that demanded a humane solution, and done peacefully.
The Legacy of David Walker:
Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois, or experienced severe public scorn.
A considerable legacy of Walker’s violent writings is found in black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet, who called for slave uprisings at the 1843 National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York; and Frederick Douglas, who spoke in violent terms when discussing slavery with fellow black abolitionists. Douglas did not often share his own violent views with white compatriots, but “in 1856, (white abolitionist) Lewis Tappan became alarmed at Douglas’s “vengeance is mine” attitude toward slaveholders.
“In your speeches and paper,” Tappan complained, “you advocate the slaughter of slaveholders. I cannot go with you.” He accused the black leader of scattering firebrands, arrows and death,” and saw a peaceful approach more productive.
Though Walker freely associated with the radical abolitionists of New England and embraced their fanatical cause, Northern statesmen like
Daniel Webster saw the danger they presented to the Union. In his biography of Webster, McMaster quotes him in 1850 saying: "His hatred of Abolitionists and Free-Soilers grew stronger and stronger. To him these men were a "band of sectionalists, narrow of mind, wanting in patriotism, without a spark of national feeling, and quite ready to see the Union go to pieces if their own selfish ends were gained."
In 1850, North Carolina's governor warned his citizens of the extent of Walker's influence in neighboring States and the possibility of slaves insurrections and race war incited by Walker and his reckless Northern colleagues:
Executive Department, Raleigh, August 19, 1850
I received a few days since from the Magistrate of Police for the
town of Wilmington, a communication, stating that a well disposed free person of color had put into the hands of the Commissioners for that town, a pamphlet, published by one David Walker of Boston; treating in most inflammatory terms of the condition of the slaves in the Southern States---exaggerating their sufferings---magnifying
their physical strength, and underrating the power of the whites----containing also and open appeal for their natural love of liberty;
and expressing throughout sentiment totally subversive of all subordination in our slaves. An investigation of the affair has shown, that the author had an agent in that place, a slave, who had received the books, with instructions to distribute them throughout the State, and particularly in Newbern, Fayetteville and Elizabeth.
It is impossible to ascertain from this agent, to what extent they
have been distributed; but the fellow is now in jail, and every effort
is making to develope the whole transaction in its fullest extent; and they have been so far developed, as to prove, that a very general and extensive impression has been made on the minds of the Negroes in the vicinity of Wilmington, that measures had been taken toward their emancipation at a certain, and not very distant day; and moreover, that a certain number of free persons of color, and a few slaves,
have for the months past, frequently discussed the subject of a conspiracy, to effect the emancipation of slaves in that portion
of the State.
How far this project has extended, it is impossible to say; but every means which the existing laws of the State place within the reach
of its citizens, should be promptly used, and more particularly by the Police officers of the towns of the seaboard, to ascertain the extent
of the mischief contemplated, and particularly to prevent the dissemination of Walker's pamphlet---the mischievous tendency
of which is obvious to every one, and the design of which cannot be mistaken. The circulation of this book having been noticed in Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, and more recently discovered in our own State, proves beyond a doubt, that a systematic attempt is making by some reckless persons at the North, to sow sedition among the slaves of the South; and that this pamphlet is intended, and well calculated to prepare the minds of the slave population for any measure, however desperate.
It is mortifying to know, that we are suffering an evil, without the possibility of a remedy, and that we live under a government where such an offence may be perpetrated with impunity. We have no remedy against the wretch whose book is scattered abroad
throughout our land, and a very inadequate one against the poor deluded slave, who may permit himself to become his agent.
I beg you will lay this matter before the police of your town, and
invite their prompt attention to the necessity of arresting the circulation of the book alluded to; and I would suggest the necessity
of the most vigilant execution of your police laws, and the laws of
the State; and if, in the course of the investigation, anything should transpire by which it may reasonably be believed that an agent, or agents, have been employed in your neighborhood, I should be glad
to have this Department informed of it, with as little delay as possible.
I have the honor to be, Your obedient servant,
John Owen, Governor
The militant actions of black abolitionists like David Walker, and others
like Harriet Tubman, are misunderstood today and for what they might have accomplished had they seen a more peaceful path to follow. In the case of Walker, it has already been established that he sought a quick and violent end to slavery, though peaceful means had already been employed elsewhere (the British ended the slave trade in 1807)---and
Saint-Domingue in 1791 demonstrated to the world, and to Americans, what a violent end to slavery would look like. And though to her credit Harriet Tubman is famous for carrying 300 slaves (out of 3.5 million) to freedom in Canada, two Virginia slaveholders emancipated over 700
slaves alone in their last will and testament. Even in 1820’s America, it
was clear that a peaceful means of emancipation was in motion, and that encouraging and nurturing those efforts would produce and eventual end to the blight on America.
The Peaceful Solution to African Slavery:
later New England) slave traders. As if to feel remorse for their part in bringing the majority of slaves to North America, though probably more
for economic reasons than philanthropic, the British ended their participation in 1807 and strongly encouraged other countries to do
the same. Within ten years, many other countries did the same and British patrols were interdicting the remaining slave trading ships, many from
the New England that David Walker called home.
If, instead of promoting slave insurrection, those like Walker had encouraged the then-existing colonization society, the Southern voluntary manumission efforts, and a compensated emancipation similar to the later British method, our country would have experienced a far different middle-nineteenth century. With the
final expenditure of nearly $5 billion as the cost of the War Between the States, and the death of nearly one million Americans both
North and South to decide the issue, one can view Walker’s radical and dangerous actions with better clarity. “The money spent to field the two armies would have purchased the liberty of the 4 million slaves five times over.” Walker played and imfamous part in
speeding the arrival of the “American Armageddon.”
North Carolinian Thomas Ruffin wrote in 1855:
our toleration of slavery, to capture and enslave the helpless
Africans and bring them here; than for us, without crime yet more heinous, to renounce our dominion over them and turn them loose
to their own discretion and self-destruction.
Their fate would soon be that of our native savages or the enfranchised blacks of the West Indies.
Nor is anything that is human.”
About the Author
Bernhard Thuersam is the Executive Director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington. A native of Niagara Falls,
New York, he has been a devoted student of world history since
1958, and is a former Chairman of the Cape Fear Museum
Board of Trustees. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)
David Walker’s Appeal, Sean Wilentz, Editor, Hill & Wang, 1965
The Abolition Crusade and its Consequences, H. Herbert, Scribner's 1912
North Carolina Illustrated: 1584-1984, H.G. Jones, UNC Press, 1983
©2006 Cape Fear Historical Institute