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The Unknown Abolitionist

Here is one historic figure that no one has ever heard of — David Walker.


To hear that name, you might think pretty common and ordinary. He could have been your neighbor or your landlord in an earlier life. Nope. Most of you probably wouldn’t want him living next to you anyway.


He was arguably the most radical abolitionist of the 1800s. Walker was an African-American preacher in Massachusetts that wrote a pamphlet, An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World. And it was angry. Very angry.


Everyone learned or read about Frederick Douglass, who was continuously vigilant in criticizing slavery. Douglass wrote and edited the antislavery newspaper, The North Star. He was passionate in seeing slavery come to an end. And at times he showed his anger in his speeches and literature. When the Supreme Court ruled against Dred Scott, denying him his freedom in 1857, Douglass lashed out against the court.


“This infamous decision of the slaveholding wing of the Supreme Court maintains that slaves are, within the contemplation of the Constitution of the United States, property; that slaves are property in the same sense that horses, sheep, and swine are property;…that colored persons of African descent have no rights…and cannot be citizens of the United States. To decide against this right in the person of Dred Scott,…is to decide against God.’’


Not very tame for the day in which it was spoken, Douglass spoke out against a ruling that overturned every limitation on slavery that was enacted by congress going back to 1820. The Dred Scott ruling could have broken his spirit but judging by his speech, his will grew stronger.


But while Douglass became the best-known abolitionist of the 19th century, David Walker was an important influence on him. Walker, however, was even more radical and angry than Douglass.


In his Appeal, published in 1829, Walker blasted slaveholders as extreme hypocrites, who believed that the ideals of the Declaration of independence applied only to them, rather than “All men’’ as the document states. Even before Douglass, Walker, who was a deeply religious man, warned that slaves would be avenged by the “God of armies.’’


He even went on to say that America didn’t belong to whites. “America is more our country, than it is the whites. We have enriched it with our blood and tears. The greatest riches in all America have arisen from our blood and tears, and will they drive us from our property and homes, which we have earned with our blood? They must look sharp or this very thing will bring swift destruction upon them.’’


Walker was right. During the first half of the 19th century, cotton production drove the American economy. Southern cotton was shipped to textile mills in the North and exported to France and England.


He was feared all over the US. Anyone caught distributing his pamphlet in the South was arrested, while abolitionists in the North considered him too radical. The reason why so many people were afraid of him was because he had no fear. The way he expressed his thoughts on slavery and oppression gave the impression that he was no victim, that he would be the aggressor at some point.


In his Appeal, he wrote, “I count my life not dear unto me, but I am ready to be offered at any moment, for what is the use of living, when in fact I am dead. But remember, Americans, that as miserable, wretched, degraded and abject as you have made us in preceding, and in this generation, to support you and your families, that some of you on the continent of America will yet curse the day that you ever were born. You want slaves, and want us for your slaves! My color will yet, root some of you out of the very face of the earth!’’


David Walker was not only an influence on Frederick Douglass, but on later civil rights activists like W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. There is a reason why this man wasn’t taught in classrooms in the US.

About pm

Teacher, writer, and freedom lover.


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