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A Lost World

1.

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,1 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—and became close to many other antislavery agitators. He was made the Boston agent for Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper in the country, founded in 1827 in New York City by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish.

Freedom’s Journal often attacked the American Colonization Society, an organization founded by whites in 1816 to emancipate blacks and remove them to Africa. But however useful the paper was, Wilentz says, Walker wanted to give a more extended account of slavery’s consequences than could be found in a newspaper. Walker may have had insurrectionary plans in mind, but because he was never arrested the extent of his antislavery activities will remain unknowable. In any case, Walker was at least able to distribute in the South some kind of provocative incitement to the blacks there. He did it through his clothing business and his reliable customers—sailors, the international “deep-sea proletariat” of the nineteenth century. Dangerous ideas could travel the same channels as stolen goods, Wilentz observes. Sympathetic sailors could carry batches of printed material sewn into their clothing. In some Southern cities, black seamen were put under watch.

Secretly carried to Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, and, from their wharves, up river, even, so Walker would have hoped, into the hinterland, went his hectoring, bold message of reason and defiance, a work unprecedented in abolitionist literature. Walker not only makes use of the Bible to condemn the “barbarous cruelties” of slavery and the white Christian churches that used the Bible to justify slavery, he says that he has for years been “troubling the pages of historians” to ascertain what his forebears could have done to white Americans to deserve their labor under the lash in the fields and down the mines in order to make them rich. He thinks of the Helots under Sparta, of the modern Greeks and the Irish newly come to America, laments the condition of blacks, but insists that black people must not allow oppression to hinder their development. After all, “learning” originated in Africa and was “carried thence” to Greece.

Walker’s rhetoric is heated, but his examples are concrete: relating what he saw during his years in the South; scorning those free blacks who claimed to be content in “low employments”; analyzing a speech by Henry Clay in favor of sending free blacks, but not enslaved blacks, to Liberia; or decrying articles in pro-colonization newspapers such as the African Repository and Colonial Journal, which presented black people as “throat-cutters in the world.”

Though Walker was remembered after Reconstruction as a hero by former black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston, his name is not in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century works by blacks devoted to Negro achievement and the progress of the race. However, Benjamin Quarles and John Hope Franklin, black historians who came along around World War II, and Herbert Aptheker and Eric Foner, white historians of radicalism in the US, recognized Walker’s place in the change of the nineteenth-century abolition movement from gradualism to militancy. Walker also mattered to black militants of the 1960s, including the new generation of black historians. David Walker is Nat Turner’s herald and a founder of the protest tradition in Vincent Harding’s There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981). Harding says that the advent of David Walker and Freedom’s Journal raised an important question: “What is the role of the word—the spoken word, the preached word, the whispered-in-the-nighttime word, the written word, the published word—in the fight for black freedom?”

In Harding’s history “the word” is the medium through which blacks confronted their captors. By “the word,” Walker challenged the slaveholders with a messianic call to resistance and holy crusade. Much of the anti-insurrection legislation then passed was either aimed at or took account of the dangers in Walker’s pamphlet. After it began to circulate in the South, Harding notes, four black men were arrested in New Orleans, as was a black preacher in Savannah, and a free black man in Richmond, Virginia, who was carrying thirty copies of the pamphlet. A group in Georgia offered a thousand dollars in reward for Walker’s death. The climate of revolt from Virginia to Louisiana had whites on edge, resulting in legislation in several slave states that made it illegal to teach free or enslaved blacks to read or write and that made it unlawful for free black peddlers to sell their wares outside the counties in which they resided. Ships were searched when they reached the South and in 1830 a white steward was found guilty of seditious libel for distributing copies of the Appeal, fined one thousand dollars, and sentenced to a year in prison.

But when Walker urges his “brethren” to read the laws of Virginia or North Carolina designed to obstruct blacks at every turn, when he urges them to buy Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia and to put it in the hands of their sons, so that they can see what the best of American minds thought of blacks and from that imagine what ordinary or inferior American minds must think of blacks—to whom is he speaking? “Men of colour, who are also of sense, for you particularly is my APPEAL designed.” He tells them to go to work and enlighten their brethren, which could be accomplished through the dissemination of education and religion.

The “fate of the word” is now spoken of as “History of the Book,” a social and intellectual history that has scholars shifting their attention from “writers and the texts they produce,” as Elizabeth McHenry puts it in Forgotten Readers, “to readers and the context in which literary texts are received and read.” Walker’s Appeal holds a place of honor in McHenry’s survey of the literary societies and reading practices of African-Americans between 1830 and 1940 because his sense of his audience informs her definition of literacy as she applies it to blacks in antebellum culture. She includes as readers those blacks whom Walker encouraged his brethren to enlighten, those whom Harding imagined being whispered to in the night.

2.

Early black literary societies, largely male, grew from “Free African Societies,” mutual aid groups, and relief organizations in the North, the earliest of which was founded in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1770. Another was formed in Philadelphia in 1787, and Boston had its own by 1796. These societies collected dues, provided for the needy and the sick, shared their experiences as outcasts, published letters and petitions about the concerns of free blacks, and campaigned for burial grounds for blacks. Their written constitutions reflected the language of the US Constitution.

These efforts at self-determination coincided with a deterioration of the conditions for free blacks. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 had led to an increase in kidnappings, and free blacks were beginning to lose the vote in those places where they had had the franchise. The number of mutual aid societies among black women as well as black men continued to grow in the 1820s and 1830s, and in the hardening racist reality of emerging Jacksonian capitalism, giving to blacks a “learned” public voice. They began to train future orators and leaders by sponsoring debates among themselves. Such activities, McHenry writes, took on an atmosphere of resistance, because the mental inferiority of blacks was a fundamental tenet of chattel slavery in the US. Mutual aid societies were anxious to show that blacks were respectable and capable citizens.

Members of the Colored Reading Society of Philadelphia, organized in 1828, met once a week to return and receive books from their librarian, and adopted a course of study that they hoped would not only enable them to amass knowledge but also to discipline their minds, form habits of accurate thinking, and acquire a facility for analysis. The cultivation of taste meant paying attention to belles-lettres, criticism, composition, pronunciation, style, and “everything included in the name of eloquence.” They studied the classics, “our best English writers,” the laws of Pennsylvania, and the subject of “Ancient Modern and Ecclesiastical History.” The society subscribed to two newspapers, Genius of Universal Emancipation and Freedom’s Journal.

  1. 1

    Hill and Wang, 1995.

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