by Dr. Ted Andrews’ U.S. History to 1877 Class
Associate Professor of History
Some free blacks in the late 1820s traversed the American south with contraband so dangerous, and so controversial, that it had to be sewn into the very clothes they were wearing. The contraband was not weapons or explosives, but rather a short pamphlet written by a black abolitionist who prophesied the wrath of God and the destruction of the United States if it did not rid itself of the evils of human bondage.
David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World was a scathing indictment of American slavery. It attacked the usual suspects who perpetuated the institution: the slaveholders, the overseers, and the politicians. But Walker, a Boston-based abolitionist who used his gift with words and cloth to disseminate his publication by sewing copies into the clothes he sold, took aim at much more than that.
He blamed founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who claimed that all men were equal but supported racist ideologies. He blamed colonizer who argued that freed blacks would be better off in Africa. He blamed white ministers for their blatant hypocrisy in espousing Christianity while embracing slavery. And he blamed black slaves themselves, who, by not violently overthrowing their masters, they were complicit in propagating the very institution under which they suffered.
Walker’s pamphlet was notorious, controversial, agitational, and wildly influential. It helped to develop an embryonic abolitionist movement in the north, but it also exposed and exacerbated the severe fault lines within it. And we can still hear echoes of Walker’s urgent, uncompromising message in black activism today.