On September 28, 1829, African-American abolitionist David Walker published “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.”
In his pamphlet, he urged Africans to defend themselves against their enslavers. His words, although written during the time when African-Americans were enslaved, must have resonated with later generations of African-Americans who organized against White domestic terrorism.
A famous quote from Walker’s Appeal was: “The Whites have had us under them for more than three centuries, murdering, and treating us like brutes. 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.”
Walker was born on September 28, 1785 in Wilmington, North Carolina to a free African woman and an enslaved African man. David Walker was born a free person because it was the law throughout North America that children inherited the status of their mother.
This law ensured that Africans retained slave status because it was very rare for an African woman to gain her freedom. Most free Africans were men who were skilled in a trade, were “rented” out to work for people other than their “owners”, where they were allowed to keep part of their wages and eventually bought their freedom.
There were occasions where the “master” promised that an enslaved African could buy his freedom and reneged on that promise after the unfortunate enslaved African paid the agreed sum of money.
Moses Grandy, whose life story is documented in the book, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America (published 1843), was cheated by three White men after he paid each of them the agreed price for his freedom.
The father of Sylvia Stark, one of the pioneer African-Canadian women of British Colombia, was also cheated by his “owner” after he paid the man the agreed price for his freedom. In Ontario, the case of Peggy Pompadour, who was advertised for sale along with her son Jupiter in 1806, is evidence of the children of Africans in North America inheriting the status of the mother.
Peggy Pompadour was married to a free African man but she and her children were owned by then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, Peter Russell and his sister, Elizabeth Russell.
Even free Africans in North America were at the mercy of their White compatriots. In some states (e.g. Delaware and California), any White person could claim that a free African was their slave and the African would not be allowed to counter that claim because they were not allowed to give evidence against a White person.
In California, this law was extended to include anyone who was not White being prevented from giving evidence against a White person. In 1854, the California Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a White man, George Hall, in the murder of Ling Sing, a Chinese man, because the three witnesses who had testified were all Chinese.
The law stated that African-Americans, mulattoes and Native Americans could not give evidence against White people and since Chinese were not White, they were included in the group who could not testify against White people in a court of law. George Hall was set free, even though he was guilty of murdering Ling Sing.
Walker, as a free African living in an American slaveholding society, was therefore not entirely free. He witnessed the degradation of Africans and the injustices to which they were subjected. He wrote about the horror of witnessing an enslaved African man forced to whip his mother to death by a sadistic slaveholder.
Walker eventually left the Southern state where he was born because, as he said, “If I remain in this bloody land, I will not live long. I cannot remain where I must hear slaves’ chains continually and where I must encounter the insults of their hypocritical enslavers.”
Walker travelled throughout the USA and settled in Boston, where he opened a clothing store close to the waterfront.
Walker became a member of organizations that denounced the enslavement of Africans in the Southern states and the discrimination to which Africans in the Northern states were subjected. He was a regular contributor to the abolitionist newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, and by the end of 1828; he had become Boston’s leading agitator against slavery.
Walker’s Appeal was considered militant because of his denunciation of slavery, those who profited from it, and those who willingly accepted it. To reach his target audience, the enslaved men and women of the South, Walker relied on African-American sailors who worked on ships that travelled to the southern states.
Walker used his clothing business which, because of its location close to the waterfront, was patronized by sailors who bought clothing for upcoming voyages. He sewed copies of his pamphlet into the lining of the sailors’ clothing. Once the pamphlets reached the South, they could be distributed throughout the region.
Slaveholders, already worried by the success of the Haitian Revolution, were panicking because an African man had articulated what they feared most, an uprising of enslaved Africans in America. The White slaveholders were not the only people who panicked when they read Walker’s Appeal.
In 1829, when 50 copies of Walker’s Appeal were delivered to an African-American minister in Savannah, Georgia, the minister informed the police. The police informed the governor of Georgia, which led to the state legislature passing a bill making the circulation of materials that might incite slaves to riot a capital offense.
The legislature also offered a reward for Walker’s capture: $10,000 alive and $1,000 dead. Other Southern states took similar measures. Louisiana enacted a bill ordering the expulsion of all free Africans who had settled in the state after 1825. By 1830, White authorities in the Southern states had begun a campaign to suppress Walker’s Appeal.
In New Orleans, four African men were arrested for owning copies and vigilantes attacked free Africans in Walker’s home town, Wilmington, North Carolina. In Savannah, Georgia, the White authorities seized dozens of copies and banned African-American sailors from going ashore at the city’s port.
The mayor of Savannah demanded that the mayor of Boston arrest Walker and outlaw the pamphlet. White slaveholders offered a $3,000 bounty for Walker’s death, and a $10,000 reward for anyone who brought him to the South alive. In June 1830, shortly after publishing the third edition of his Appeal, Walker was found dead on the doorstep of his home.
Walker’s words, although written 183 years ago, still resonates when the “stop and frisk” policies of the New York City Police Department (which disproportionately targets African-Americans) and the notorious “stand your ground laws” in several states are taken into account.
In spite of the fact that America now has an African-American President, African-Americans like the late Trayvon Martin continue to be victims of the ingrained attitude of what Walker described in his Appeal as “more than three centuries, murdering, and treating us like brutes”.