(Yawu Miller photo)
Loretta Williams didn’t learn about David Walker in her history book. Like many African Americans in the 1950s in Boston, she learned about the 19th century black power advocate through community events organized by Anna Bobbit Gardner, the state-appointed head of Negro History Week.
Sixty years later, Walker still hasn’t made it into most history books, although his Beacon Hill home has a bronze plaque memorializing its once-famous resident. But Williams, a retired professor of sociology who taught at Simmons College and Boston University, is part of a growing movement of activists seeking to carve out a place for Walker in U.S. history.
Earlier this year, Williams re-wrote Walker’s Wikipedia entry, correcting historical inaccuracies and situating Walker’s work in the continuum of black struggle in U.S. history. Next Thursday, at 6 p.m., the David Walker Memorial Project will hold its official project launch at the African Meeting House.
“We want to turn this into something that will help kids see something other than the sanitized versions of Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman they read about in history,” Williams said. “This is an attempt to get new stories, a new narrative so kids can learn about this.”
While Williams and other scholars say Walker was an integral part of the struggle for black liberation in the 19th and 20th centuries, his history has largely been overlooked.
But in 1829, when Walker wrote his “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World,” a 90-page pamphlet urging African Americans to rise up against slavery and demanding that whites repent for the sin of holding them in bondage, he became one of the best-known, and most feared and hated people in the country.
In The Appeal, Walker refuted racist arguments for black inferiority popularized by Thomas Jefferson and argued against the openly-racist American Colonization Society, which sought to ship free blacks to colonies in what is now Liberia. He urged enslaved blacks to rise against the whites who enslaved them and appealed to free blacks and Christian whites to help in anti-slavery efforts.
“He tells you what the arguments are for black inferiority and he debunks them,” notes State Rep. Byron Rushing, former president of the Museum of African American History in Boston.
The popularity of The Appeal is evident not only in the fact that it underwent three printings in 1829, but also in the reaction among Southern whites, who banned the publication, arrested blacks for distributing it and even went so far as to ban black seamen from disembarking in Savannah, Ga., for fear they would further disseminate The Appeal.
The measure did little good, as blacks were arrested as far away as New Orleans for distributing the pamphlet.
All of the controversy underscores some interesting facts about blacks in the early 19th century, Rushing says.
“It is interesting how effective communication was between blacks in the South and blacks in the North,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion among African Americans in Boston and black people who came to Boston on ships. There had to be enough people who knew people who were willing to distribute this in the South.”
Despite all of the controversy, and perhaps because of it, Walker’s Appeal was influential among white abolitionists. While many in the abolitionist movement believed blacks to be inherently inferior to whites and preached segregation of the races, Walker was unequivocal in his contention that blacks should have equal standing to whites in U.S. society.
And he was the first person, African American or otherwise, to articulate those views in writing.
“What Walker represents is radical ideas about liberation and participation in society coming from the black community,” Rushing said.
Abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison was thought to be influenced by Walker to turn his back on the recolonization schemes pushed by the American Colonization Society and others.
At the height of his fame, the state of Georgia placed a $10,000 bounty on Walker’s head – an immense sum at the time.
“He was a badass,” Williams says. “That’s partly why his history was erased. Even though we read him now and we see all the Christian caveats in there, he still was a badass.”
Walker was born in 1796 in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina to an enslaved father and free mother. He arrived in Boston in the 1820s, married and became active among the 2,000 or so blacks who lived mostly in the Beacon Hill section of the city.
Although Walker died in 1830 of what historians believe was tuberculosis, his fervent calls for black liberation are thought to have influenced everything from Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt to the stridency of the Black Power Movement of the 1960s.
His son, Edwin Garrison Walker, became one of the first two blacks to serve in the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1866. The young Walker was active in the city’s fledgling Civil Rights movement, which scored an important victory with school segregation outlawed by the Legislature in 1855.
Contemporary Civil Rights activist Horace Seldon, who has been working with Williams on the David Walker project, says he has read The Appeal as many as 15 times.
“Every time I read it, I come away feeling I read one of the most amazing documents,” he comments. “When you read his appeal, it’s astounding what he knew. It’s really simply amazing how he learned all he learned about religion, philosophy, politics and history.”
Ultimately, Seldon says, the David Walker Memorial Project organizers want a proper memorial for Walker, who was buried in an unmarked grave in what is now South Boston.