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One of the most "dangerous" men in American history - Keenan Norris

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In 1830, David Walker sewed a pamphlet into the lining of a coat. The volume was thin enough to be hidden, but its content was far from insubstantial. At the time, many members of the US government considered this pamphlet to be one of the most dangerous documents in American history. But what was this incendiary document? And who exactly was the man who wrote it? Keenan Norris investigates.

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By learning about David Walker, we discover the central role that free Black communities played in the movement to abolish slavery in the United States. When David Walker was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, he was one of only eighteen free Black people in the city. In his early adulthood, Walker relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, where there was a larger free Black community. It was in Charleston that Walker became affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. You can read more about the AME Church’s founding by Black freed people and the critical role that the church played in the struggle for freedom and equality in America.

After moving to Boston, David Walker became part of a small but thriving community of free Black people who were active as entrepreneurs and activists. Black Bostonians dominated the consignment trades in the city at that time with their main area of commerce, Brattle Street, the location where David Walker set up his used clothing store. Boston abolitionists, many of whom were Black, formed what was perhaps the most formidable base of activism in the fight to end slavery.

The ripple effects of David Walker’s activism extended well beyond his lifetime. Walker’s best friend was James Stewart, the only licensed Black ship outfitter in Boston at the time. Stewart likely facilitated Walker’s connections with the seamen who would later smuggle Walker’s Appeal into the South. Stewart died of tuberculosis not long before Walker himself died of the disease. Stewart’s wife, Maria Stewart, would take up their cause in the coming years, becoming a major figure in the abolition movement. Maria Stewart is often credited as the first African-American woman to give public speeches.

David Walker also inspired William Lloyd Garrison. Though Garrison, a pacifist, rejected Walker’s call for the violent overthrow of slavery, after Walker’s death, Garrison published the Appeal in serial form in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. The Liberator would serve a vital role in the abolition movement. The Liberator’s readership was primarily made up of free Black people. After the Civil War, Garrison rebranded the newspaper as The Nation, which is published to this day. Walker’s son, Edwin Garrison Walker, was apparently named after William Lloyd Garrison, and Garrison Walker would become the second African-American ever elected to a state legislature (in Massachusetts).

But David Walker’s greatest impact was ideological. He fundamentally shifted the abolitionist movement from the prevailing gradualist strategy to a radical approach to freedom struggle. An important catalyst in the development of Pan-Africanist thought, Walker presages the emergence of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X in America, as well as Aime Cesaire, Kwame Ture, and Kwame Nkrumah internationally. Interestingly, Walker’s strong opposition to the Colonization Plan and insistence that Black Americans were integral to America’s founding heralds a deeply nationalist strain in African-American thought that can be seen in the works of Black intellectuals such as Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison. In the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones articulates this ideology: “We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.”

Despite his influence on Black thinkers the world over, David Walker is not a well-known figure in American history. Students and scholars who are interested in learning more about Walker’s life and work can, however, look to Peter Hinks’s To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Antebellum Slave Resistance, Darryl Scriven’s A Dealer of Old Clothes: Philosophical Conversations with David Walker, James Turner’s introductory essay to Black Classic Press’s re-printing of the third edition of Walker’s Appeal, the Master’s theses of Taiyo Davis and Hassan Crockett, and the essay “A Dangerous Pamphlet in the Old South” by Clement Eaton. Walker’s contemporaries were highly aware of his impact. Henry Highland Garnett’s introduction to the posthumous 1848 edition of the Appeal provides an overview of Walker’s life by someone who knew Walker personally. In an 1883 speech, Frederick Douglass commented on Walker’s centrality to the abolition movement, stating that the Appeal “startled the land like a trumpet of coming judgment.”

Understanding Walker’s life and work provides more detailed insight into the roots of the abolition movement and the subsequent struggle for equal rights in America. It also shows how important literature and coalition-building are to the empowerment of oppressed people, and demonstrates the willingness of oppressive governments to quell activism through suppression of activist literature and communication — relevant modern-day issues which the Writing Freedom website explores through the historical example of Walker’s Appeal and the current struggle of writers in northern Nigeria.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Keenan Norris
  • Director Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Music Cem Misirlioglu
  • Sound Designer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Senior Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Senior Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Charles Wallace

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