Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies
by Elizabeth McHenry
Duke University Press, 423 pp., $59.95; $18.95 (paper)
In 1829, in Boston, David Walker, a free black, published privately his impassioned 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. Intended to prove that blacks were suffering a worse degradation under Christian Americans than the children of Jacob ever had under heathen Pharaoh, Walker’s pamphlet, reprinted three times before his sudden death in 1830, was regarded by whites in the North as well as in the South as the most incendiary denunciation of slavery yet to be found in the United States:
Have they not, after having reduced us to the deplorable condition of slaves under their feet, held us up as descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang-Outangs?… Has Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites, both in the endowments of our bodies and of minds?
Blacks must refute Jefferson’s charges themselves, and not depend on whites, however friendly to the cause of black freedom, because Jefferson’s words were “as great a barrier to our emancipation as any thing that has ever been advanced against us.”
In his introduction to a recent edition of Walker’s Appeal, Sean Wilentz tells us that Walker was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, maybe in 1796. His father was enslaved, but Walker’s status derived from his free mother. Walker could read and write by the time he left Wilmington, and during his wanderings around the Appalachian West and parts of the South he discovered how precarious a free black’s position could be. But in the early nineteenth century, Charleston, South Carolina, had a strong free black community and a powerfully organized independent denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was in Charleston that Denmark Vesey conceived his conspiracy, in which he tried to create a black army to take over the city, involving thousands of black people. The plot was uncovered in 1822 and thirty-nine of the plotters were executed.
Wilentz says that although it is impossible to be certain, Walker may have had a part in Vesey’s insurrectionary plans. Though he refers in his own pamphlet specifically to blacks in Northern cities who spy on other blacks and betray runaways, some knowledge of the perils of planning antislavery activities perhaps lay behind Walker’s remark that he wished “the coloured people” were more of Moses’ disposition, “instead of courting favor with, and telling news and lies to our natural enemies, against each other—aiding them to keep their hellish chains of slavery upon us.” He reminds his “brethren” that Hannibal could have stormed Rome had Carthage not been “dis-united.”
Walker was in Boston in 1825, working among small shopkeepers as a used clothes dealer, and by 1828 he was a member of the leading black institutions in the city—the May Street Methodist Church, the Prince Hall African Masonic Lodge, the Massachusetts General Colored Association …