David Walker was born in 1785 in North Carolina. His father, a slave died before he was born. He was raised by his mother, a free black woman. Walker eventually settled in Boston, where he began to associate with prominent black activists. He joined institutions that denounced slavery in the South and discrimination in the North. He became involved with the nation’s first African American newspaper, the Freedom’s Journal out of New York City, to which he frequently contributed. By the end of 1828, he had become Boston’s leading spokesman against slavery. His home was a refuge for African-Americans in need, especially those who had escaped from slavery. In September of 1829 he published a pamphlet called « The Appeal » where he urged Africans to defend themselves against their enslavers.
Walker distributed the Appeal through friends and contacts traveling to the South who carried copies with them. He also sent copies through the regular mail.
Most slaves in the South could not read or write; it was a crime to teach them to do so. Walker’s “agents” traveling preachers, sailors, laborers, and others tapped their own underground networks to help ensure that the Appeal was read aloud to those who couldn’t read it for themselves. It’s safe to assume that hundreds if not thousands of slaves were secretly exposed to Walker’s stirring words and ideas.
Southern authorities were alarmed by the Appeal, and did everything in their power to suppress it. They feared it would encourage revolts at a time when slave resistance was growing in many areas.
The Appeal made a great impression in the South, with both slaves and slaveholders. To the slaves the words were inspiring and instilled a sense of pride and hope. Horrified whites, on the other hand, initiated laws that forbade blacks to learn to read and banned the distribution of antislavery literature. 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. Friends concerned about his safety implored him to flee to Canada. Walker responded that he would stand his ground. « Somebody must die in this cause, » he added. « I may be doomed to the stake and the fire, or to the scaffold tree, but it is not in me to falter if I can promote the work of emancipation. »
In June 1830, shortly after publishing the third edition of his Appeal, Walker was found dead two month later on the doorstep of his home. His supporters thought he had been poisoned by someone who supported slavery.