Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: David Walker – Radical Abolitionist of the 1820s

David Walker
David Walker

The Confederacy and Southern Cause are, of course, huge parts of Southern history. The battles where Southern men killed and died and were led by leaders almost god-like in their reverence consume nearly the full focus of the subject. While many celebrate the bravery and actions on the battlefield and homefront alike, how many pause to remember the slave, the abolitionist or even the pacifist.

From time to time, I’d like to highlight these forgotten heroes of Southern history – the slaves, the abolitionists, the draft dodger, the Unionists. Though they fought against the Confederate Cause, they were Southerners through and through. The same Southern blood ran through their veins, and the same affection, reverence and undying devotion to their own cause. It’s our duty, Southerners or not, to cultivate, perpetuate and even sanctify their memory and their place in Southern history.

David Walker: Radical Abolitionist

More than a few modern readers might find it curious to hear that not all who were born into the antebellum South were in favor of slavery. In fact, there were some, such as the Grimke Sisters, who were radically against it. One man, however, stands out above nearly all others in his opposition to the institution.

Though he was born in 1785 in Wilmington, North Carolina, David Walker was not a slave, unlike his father before him. Due to the law of partus sequitur ventrem, Walker inherited his mother’s freedom.

An 1827 copy of Freedom's Journal.
An 1827 copy of Freedom’s Journal.

When Walker was born, nearly a quarter of North Carolina’s population consisted of African-Americans. Of those 111,000, but 5,000 were free people of color. 1Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States, 1790 8. This can be found here. Prior to the Revolution, blacks in North Carolina had been subject to comparatively mild slave codes. But as the 1700s wore on, they lost more and more of their rights. In 1765, curfews required all black slaves to be inside by 10pm. Neither were they allowed to assemble in groups larger than four. After becoming a state, these codes were tightened. 2Before 1715, free blacks in North Carolina had something very near to actual legal equality to whites, and until 1776, black males could vote.

During Walker’s childhood, he would have experienced slavery all around him becoming far more violent and controlling. Slaves could not give testimony against whites, and those slaves accused of crimes had to be tried before a jury consisting of slaveholders. 3Clayton E. Jewett Slavery in the South; A State-by-State History (Greenwood Press, 2004) 193-195. This note covers the preceding paragraph as well.

Walker had grown up around slavery, but had never gotten used to seeing it. For him, there was no conditioning, and he was daily tormented by the very thought of it.

Illustration to the Second Edition of The Appeal.
Illustration to the Second Edition of The Appeal.

“If I remain in this bloody land,” Walker recalled, “I will not live long. As true as God reigns, I will be avenged for the sorrow which my people have suffered. This is not the place for me – no, no. I must leave this part of the country. It will be a great trial for me to live on the same soil where so many men are in slavery; certainly I cannot remain where I must hear their chains continually, and where I must encounter the insults of their hypocritical enslavers. Go, I must!” 4It’s not very clear just when this was written. The earliest book that I could find that used the quote was George W. Williams History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1885) 553. There’s no real reason to doubt the quote. Likely it was passed down in print from now-lost African-American or Abolitionist newspapers.

Walker spent some time – perhaps several years – traveling. He, according to a brief biography in a modern edition of his only publication, “left Wilmington as a literate young man and wandered around the United States, residing for an unspecified period in Charleston.” This likely was around 1821, which would place him in the city around the time of Denmark Vesey, allegedly the leader of a suppressed slave revolt. 5David Walker Appeal (Hill and Wang, 1995) viii, x. The introduction and brief biography (including the quote) were penned by Sean Wilentz.

It was probably around 1825, at the age of forty, when Walker finally gave up on the South and settled in Boston, Massachusetts. He opened a second hand clothing store in Beacon Hill in 1828, got married, became a father. That same year, he was accused of receiving stolen goods, but was surprisingly found innocent of any wrong doing by an all white jury.

His time in Boston found him moving in black anti-slavery circles. He began canvasing support for the Freedom’s Journal, a new black newspaper in New York, and launched pointed written condemnations of the American Colonization Society. 6Ibid., xii-xiv.


Walker’s Appeal

In December of 1828, he penned what would be the culmination of his activism – The Appeal, a series of four articles. Originally published in 1829, it spanned seventy-six pages. Due to its length, there’s no way to cite all of it here. Instead, what follows is a few key excerpts.

Through the Preamble of the work, Walker repeated appeals to the reader – slave and enslaver alike – to remember God.

The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is (as they think) of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. In fact, they are so happy to keep in ignorance and degradation, and to receive the homage and the labour of the slaves, they forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, having his ears continually open to the cries, tears and groans of his oppressed people; and being a just and holy Being will at one day appear fully in behalf of the oppressed, and arrest the progress of the avaricious oppressors; for although the destruction of the oppressors God may not effect by the oppressed, yet the Lord our God will bring other destructions upon them–for not unfrequently will he cause them to rise up one against another, to be split and divided, and to oppress each other, and sometimes to open hostilities with sword in hand. 7David Walker Appeal (Boston: Printed for the Author, 1830) 5-6. From the “Preamble”.


In the first article, entitled “Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Slavery,” Walker details the plight of black people, free and slave alike. He wrote of how whites would not allow marriage between the races, how they would cease property from the families of deceased blacks, how whites saw the entire black race as inhuman.

“Have they not,” he asked, “after having reduced us to the deplorable condition of slaves under their feet, held us up as descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang- Outangs? O! my God! I appeal to every man of feeling–is not this insupportable? Is it not heaping the most gross insult upon our miseries, because they have got us under their feet and we cannot help ourselves?” 8Ibid., 12.

Walker then turned his ire to Thomas Jefferson, wildly popular at the time – having died just three years prior. “Has Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites, both in the endowments of our bodies and of minds?” He asked. “It is indeed surprising, that a man of such great learning, combined with such excellent natural parts, should speak so of a set of men in chains. I do not know what to compare it to, unless, like putting one wild deer in an iron cage, where it will be secured, and hold another by the side of the same, then let it go, and expect the one in the cage to run as fast as the one at liberty.” 9Ibid., 12-13.

He held very little appreciation for whites who spoke out against prejudice. That was fine, but more importantly, it was blacks from whom he wished to hear. “For let no one of us suppose that the refutations which have been written by our white friends are enough–they are whites–we are blacks. We, and the world wish to see the charges of Mr. Jefferson refuted by the blacks themselves, according to their chance; for we must remember that what the whites have written respecting this subject, is other men’s labours, and did not emanate from the blacks.” 10Ibid., 17-18.

Walker implored the black community to strive despite their condition.

I know well, that there are some talents and learning among the coloured people of this country, which we have not a chance to develop, in consequence of oppression; but our oppression ought not to hinder us from acquiring all we can. For we will have a chance to develop them by and by. God will not suffer us, always to be oppressed. Our sufferings will come to an end, in spite of all the Americans this side of eternity. Then we will want all the learning and talents among ourselves, and perhaps more, to govern ourselves.–“Every dog must have its day,” the American’s is coming to an end. 11Ibid., 18.


In the second article, “Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Ignorance,” explored this point farther. “Any man who is curious to see the full force of ignorance developed among the coloured people of the United States of America,”he continued, “has only to go into the southern and western states of this confederacy, where, if he is not a tyrant, but has the feelings of a human being, who can feel for a fellow creature, he may see enough to make his very heart bleed!”

Walker went on to explore the horrors of slavery, the “hell on earth,” and the difficulties of living as a free black in the North. He called to light the black people working in league with “tyrants” and enslavers, who aided in the beatings, captures, and murders of slaves.

He stopped short of calling for open insurrection, but gave clear instructions if it were to happen.

It is just the way with black men–eight white men can frighten fifty of them; whereas, if you can only get courage into the blacks, I do declare it, that one good black man can put to death six white men; and I give it as a fact, let twelve black men get well armed for battle, and they will kill and put to flight fifty whites.–The reason is, the blacks, once you get them started, they glory in death. The whites have had us under them for more than three centuries, murdering, and treating us like brutes; and, as Mr. Jefferson wisely said, they have never found us out–they do not know, indeed, that there is an unconquerable disposition in the breasts of the blacks, which, when it is fully awakened and put in motion, will be subdued, only with the destruction of the animal existence. 12Ibid., 29.

This appeal to violence was simply a logical response, he contended: “if you commence, make sure work–do not trifle, for they will not trifle with you–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; in fact, the man who will stand still and let another murder him, is worse than an infidel, and, if he has common sense, ought not to be pitied.” 13Ibid., 29-30.

But this was not his main ideal. What he wished was for all of his race to be enlightened, to be educated. “I call upon you therefore to cast your eyes upon the wretchedness of your brethren,” he pleaded, “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.” 14Ibid., 33.

If the black community were to acquire education, he contended, would make “tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundations.” The enslavers understood that education would kill slavery. “The bare name of educating the coloured people, scares our cruel oppressors almost to death.” 15Ibid., 37. Walker lamented the fact that enslavers purposely kept the blacks uneducated, allowing only whites to attend schools. “It is a notorious fact,” he said, “that the major part of the white Americans, have, ever since we have been among them, tried to keep us ignorant, and make us believe that God made us and our children to be slaves to them and theirs.” 16Ibid,. 39.


Though Walker continuously referenced God and Jesus Christ throughout his work, he did not give a pass to white Christians. In his third article, “Our Wretchedness in Consequence of the Preachers of the Religion of Jesus Christ,” he focused upon what he saw as hypocrisy. Enslavers, calling themselves Christians, he insisted, “not only hinder their fellow creatures, the Africans, but thousands of them will absolutely beat a coloured person nearly to death, if they catch him on his knees, supplicating the throne of grace.” 17Ibid., 41.

Walker doubted their sincerity to Christ. “Have not the Americans the Bible in their hands?” He asked. “Do they believe it? Surely they do not. See how they treat us in open violation of the Bible!!” If they truly believed the teachings of Christ, “one continual cry would be raised in all parts of this confederacy, and would cease only with the complete overthrow of the system of slavery, in every part of the country.” 18Ibid., 43-44.

“Can any thing be a greater mockery of religion than the way in which it is conducted by the Americans? It appears as though they are bent only on daring God Almighty to do his best–they chain and handcuff us and our children and drive us around the country like brutes, and go into the house of the God of justice to return him thanks for having aided them in their infernal cruelties inflicted upon us. Will the Lord suffer this people to go on much longer, taking his holy name in vain? Will he not stop them, PREACHERS and all? O Americans! Americans!! I call God–I call angels–I call men, to witness, that your DESTRUCTION is at hand, and will be speedily consummated unless you REPENT.” 19Ibid., 49.


In his final article, “Our Wretchedness in Consequence of the Colonizing Plan,” Walker takes to task the American Colonization Society. Founded in 1816, the ACS posed as an anti-slavery organization, and was, for the most part, the largest of such societies. It was not, however, so much against slavery as it was against the black race. Walker understood that many supporters of colonization were not evil, especially when compared to the enslavers themselves. Still, he warned that “those avaricious and ungodly tyrants among you, I am awfully afraid will drag down the vengeance of God upon you.” 20Ibid., 50.

Much of the rhetoric coming from the ACS was incredibly degrading to African-Americans. In their zeal to return black people to Africa, the members played up the idea that blacks could not take advantage of privileges and freedom. Walker believed that the true purpose (or at least the final outcome) of the plan to colonize the freed slaves was so that the remaining slaves would have no further longings for freedom.

“The real sense and meaning,” he wrote, ” is [to] get the free people of colour away to Africa, from among the slaves, where they may at once be blessed and happy, and those who we hold in slavery, will be contented to rest in ignorance and wretchedness, to dig up gold and silver for us and our children.” 21Ibid., 58.

He declared that colonization was “a plan got up by a gang of slave-holders to select the free people of colour from among the slaves, that our more miserable brethren may be the better secured in ignorance and wretchedness, to work their farms and dig their mines, and thus go on enriching the Christians with their blood and groans.”

“This country is as much ours as it is the whites, whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by. They tell us about prejudice–what have we to do with it? Their prejudices will be obliged to fall like lightning to the ground, in succeeding generations; not, however, with the will and consent of all the whites, for some will be obliged to hold on to the old adage, viz: the blacks are not men, but were made to be an inheritance to us and our children for ever!” 22Ibid., 62.

While his other articles kept to their entitled topic, the fourth veered greatly, becoming an overview of his entire philosophy.

God will show the whites what we are, yet. I say, from the beginning, I do not think that we were natural enemies to each other. But the whites having made us so wretched, by subjecting us to slavery, and having murdered so many millions of us, in order to make us work for them, and out of devilishness–and they taking our wives, whom we love as we do ourselves–our mothers, who bore the pains of death to give us birth–our fathers and dear little children, and ourselves, and strip and beat us one before the other–chain, hand-cuff, and drag us about like rattle-snakes–shoot us down like wild bears, before each others faces, to make us submissive to, and work to support them and their families. They (the whites) know well, if we are men–and there is a secret monitor in their hearts which tells them we are–they know, I say, if we are men, and see them treating us in the manner they do, that there can be nothing in our hearts but death alone, for them, notwithstanding we may appear cheerful, when we see them murdering our dear mothers and wives, because we cannot help ourselves.” 23Ibid., 68-69.

Though he did not, in the end, blame black people for not standing up for themselves, he encouraged them to do so.

“Oh! my coloured brethren, all over the world, when shall we arise from this death-like apathy?–And be men!! You will notice, if ever we become men, I mean respectable men, such as other people are,) we must exert ourselves to the full. For remember, that it is the greatest desire and object of the greater part of the whites, to keep us ignorant, and make us work to support them and their families.–Here now, in the Southern and Western sections of this country, there are at least three coloured persons for one white, why is it, that those few weak, good-for-nothing whites, are able to keep so many able men, one of whom, can put to flight a dozen whites, in wretchedness and misery?” 24Ibid., 70.

Turning back to colonization, Walker planted his flag. “America is more our country, than it is the whites,” he argued, “we have enriched it with our blood and tears.” 25Ibid., 73. Through all the pain and suffering of his race, Walker contended that he was asking “for nothing but the rights of man … for them to set us free, and treat us like men, and there will be no danger, for we will love and respect them, and protect our country — but cannot conscientiously do these things until they treat us like men.” 26Ibid., 74-75.

To Be Continued

The Appeal was first published in 1829 and then revised the year following. Reaction to his words was immediate and intense. And yet, despite the best efforts of anti-abolitionists, it remained on the bookshelves of prominent African-American activists and scholars from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X.

So important was its impact and history that it deserves its own article. The four articles Walker published were so crucially important to Abolitionism that entire books have been written on the subject.

In our next post, we’ll delve into not only the reaction to Walker’s Appeal, but into the effects it had upon the colonization and abolitionist movements.

References   [ + ]

Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.