David Walker was born to a free black woman in Wilmington, North Carolina; his father died before his birth. Walker was free under the laws in effect at the time of his birth because his mother was free. Despite his mother’s free status, he grew up oppressed by life in a slave society and developed a strong hatred for the institution. He left the South, stating that “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.” He traveled extensively around the country and by 1827 had settled in Boston, where he established a profitable secondhand clothing business.
Walker’s famous seventy-six-page pamphlet 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, was first published in 1829.
In the emotional but carefully reasoned invective, he urged slaves to rise up against their masters and free themselves, regardless of the great risk involved. “Had you rather not be killed,” he asked, “than to be a slave to a tyrant, who takes the life of your mother, wife, and dear little babies?” He warned white Americans to repent, for their day of judgment was at hand. They should not be deceived by the “outwardly servile character of the Negro,” he wrote, for there was “a primitive force in the black slave that, once aroused, will make him a magnificent fighter.”
The Appeal’s circulation in the South by the summer of 1830 caused great concern, particularly in Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina. It first appeared in Walker’s home state of Wilmington, where copies were smuggled on ships from Boston or New York and distributed by a slave thought to be Walker’s agent.
When Southern whites learned about the newspaper Walker was distributing, they declared it illegal and placed a bounty on David’s head, with the option of being killed or alive. David died on June 18, 1830, under mysterious circumstances.
Walker died in Boston three months after the third edition of his pamphlet was published. His cause of death is unknown, though it was widely assumed that he was poisoned, possibly as a result of large rewards offered by Southern slaveholders for his death. After his death, his only child, Edward G. Walker, became the first black person elected to the Massachusetts state legislature in 1866.