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A fiery Black abolitionist from Boston is all but forgotten. Yet his words still resonate

A group lobbying to have 19th century black abolitionist David Walker recognized in Boston includes, from left, Christle Rawlins-Jackson, president of the Beacon Hill Scholars, Peter Snoad, a playwright, L'Merchie Frazier, education director for the Museum of African American History, and former state representative Byron Rushing.
A group lobbying to have 19th century black abolitionist David Walker recognized in Boston includes, from left, Christle Rawlins-Jackson, president of the Beacon Hill Scholars, Peter Snoad, a playwright, L'Merchie Frazier, education director for the Museum of African American History, and former state representative Byron Rushing.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The saga of David Walker, a 19th-century Black abolitionist, resonates with only a few Bostonians and is rarely mentioned with giants of the movement such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and William Lloyd Garrison.

He owned a used-clothing shop on a narrow street that vanished under the drab concrete of City Hall Plaza. Only one wall of his home is believed to survive on Beacon Hill. And his bones, buried in a South Boston cemetery where a girls school was later built, have been lost for nearly 200 years.

But Walker, who died in 1830 at the age of 34, was an ardent revolutionary, a free Black man who wrote a fiery pamphlet that demanded an end to US slavery, excoriated a country that lauded liberty but enslaved millions, and terrified Southern lawmakers and plantation owners with an outraged call for resistance.

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America had never read anything like it. Walker’s “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” inspired countless Black Americans, both enslaved and free, and lit a fire under the growing abolitionist movement, which found a home in Boston.

The city has never erected a memorial to commemorate Walker, although the nonprofit Heritage Guild has placed a small plaque at the site of his Joy Street home. But for more than a decade, a network of activists, scholars, and community leaders has been working to bring Walker’s story alive for a new and broader audience.

A plaque in David Walker's honor, placed at the site of his former home on Joy Street in Beacon Hill,  tells part of his story.
A plaque in David Walker's honor, placed at the site of his former home on Joy Street in Beacon Hill, tells part of his story. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“History gets told through the eyes of the people who are telling it. When you don’t have many people telling stories from different perspectives, you’ll only get one perspective,” said Christle Rawlins-Jackson, the president of Beacon Hill Scholars, a part of that network.

“His fight against slavery, his participation in the Underground Railroad, there’s so much he contributed to in the time he was here,” she added.

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Walker’s “Appeal” was written in Boston in 1829 and circulated secretly throughout the South. Often, the pamphlet was smuggled there by Black seamen who visited Walker’s shop on Brattle Street, disembarked at Southern ports, and distributed the document to free Blacks and others who could read it to the enslaved at clandestine locations.

What made the “Appeal” uniquely powerful was its impassioned demand for immediate emancipation, civil rights for freed Blacks, and an acknowledgment that winning these liberties might require violence. Two years after its publication, Nat Turner of Virginia led the deadliest slave rebellion in US history.

Walker also made a broad intellectual and moral case for racial equality throughout the “Appeal,” assailing the hypocrisy of a nation that embraced religion but rationalized the immorality of human bondage.

“My object is, if possible, to awaken in the breasts of my afflicted, degraded, and slumbering brethren a spirit of inquiry and investigation respecting our miseries and wretchedness in this Republican Land of Liberty,” Walker wrote.

His call for freedom, Douglass said, “startled the land like a trump of coming judgment.”

To inspire anew, a website has been created at www.davidwalkermemorial.org to tell Walker’s remarkable story and seek support for a plaque or memorial.

“Why is David Walker not widely known in Boston and beyond? Why is he not commemorated here?” asked Peter Snoad, a Jamaica Plain resident who wrote “Raising David Walker,” a play that premiered in 2014 in Roxbury. “He deserves to be up there with all the greatest freedom fighters in the country.”

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Paul Marcus, an activist who helped create the website, said Walker’s message remains strikingly relevant.

“It’s ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and that has been said by African-Americans forever. It’s not new,” said Marcus, the former executive director of Community Change, a Boston-based organization that promotes racial equity. “He’s a part of what we would call the river of justice.”

Walker was born in Wilmington, N.C., and moved to Boston in 1825, where he settled among the vibrant Black community on the north slope of Beacon Hill. A religious man, Walker was active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and helped found the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which opposed a move supported by Thomas Jefferson and others to establish a colony for American Blacks in Africa.

In addition to his clothing business, Walker wrote for and sold subscriptions to Freedom’s Journal, a pioneering Black-owned newspaper based in New York. But nothing, perhaps, could have prepared anyone but his closest contemporaries for the ideas he espoused for a national audience in the “Appeal.”

“The man who would not fight under our Lord and master Jesus Christ in the glorious and heavenly cause of freedom and of God — to be delivered from the most wretched, abject, and servile slavery that ever a people was afflicted with ... ought to be kept with all of his children or family in slavery, or in chains, to be butchered by his cruel enemies,” Walker said.

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“Believe this,” Walker added, “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.”

Government officials in Georgia were so alarmed by the “Appeal” that they offered a $10,000 bounty for Walker’s capture; $1,000 if dead.

The “Appeal” also caused a sensation in Boston. In September 1830, the Boston Evening Transcript reported that the city’s Black residents regarded the pamphlet “as if it were a star in the east, guiding them to freedom and emancipation.”

The “Appeal,” however, struck some abolitionists as too radical, particularly its references to justified violence.

“My take is that there were so many abolitionists, both Black and white, who were opposed to violence or ambivalent about it,” said Byron Rushing, the president of the Roxbury Historical Society, who served as a longtime state representative from Boston.

Adopting Walker’s philosophy, he said, “would be saying they were in favor of Black people rebelling rather than slavery ending by some form of political change or shift. I can imagine it scaring the hell out of white people.”

Instead of sparking a revolution, Walker died of tuberculosis shortly after the “Appeal” was published, according to city records. Some of his supporters suspected he was murdered because of his views, but that theory does not find much traction among historians.

Walker was buried off Dorchester Street in South Boston, possibly in a segregated tomb, according to Kelly Thomas of the city’s Historic Burying Ground Initiative. The relatively new cemetery was abandoned after water and a large sheet of slate were discovered near the surface.

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The city-owned plot was given to the School Department for a girls grammar school, Thomas said, and records do not show whether Walker’s remains were reinterred.

However, his legacy endures. Walker’s son, Edwin, became one of the first two Black lawmakers elected to the Massachusetts Legislature. A century later, the “Appeal” received new recognition during the civil rights movement.

Still, attention has been limited.

When Eliel Ig-Izevbekhai arrived at Harvard University, he had never heard of Walker. But then he joined the David Walker Scholars, where Ig-Izevbekhai and others from the university’s Black Men’s Forum serve as mentors to boys of color at three middle schools in Cambridge.

“It was crazy to me that I hadn’t heard his name,” Ig-Izevbekhai said.

“Sometimes when it comes to history, especially Black history, that history tends to go to the main figures,” he added. “A lot of the work that was done to support these men, and came before these men, gets left unheard.”

For Rawlins-Jackson, the Beacon Hill Scholars president, hearing those stories is a vital addition to the long and unfolding narrative of Black freedom fighters.

“If you know someone before you has endured and contributed and made a difference,” she said, “somehow it makes you feel that you can do that, too.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.