Title page of the 1830 edition of David Walker’s Appeal...to the Colored Citizens of the World....
“America is more our country, than it is the whites—we have enriched it with our blood and tears.” —David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World
In 1829, David Walker, a free African American, published his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World in Boston, Massachusetts. It invoked the Bible and the Declaration of Independence to challenge the inequities of American slavery. The Appeal was a call to rise up and fight the concept of unapologetically justified violence as divinely mandated if whites refused to repent and embrace their black brethren in Christian fellowship.
Laws were passed in all Southern states prohibiting the distribution of the Appeal, but its powerful use of language resonated with both free and enslaved blacks and terrified most Southern whites. Walker, considered a founding father of Black Nationalism as well as of militant abolitionism, died of natural causes just a year after the Appeal was published—although it was long thought he was assassinated because of the many threats on his life.
In stark contrast to David Walker’s views, the American Colonization Society (ACS) supported immigration to Liberia, a colony for African Americans founded on the west coast of Africa. John Day, also a free black, was a major proponent of colonization and an early Liberian colonist. He argued that African Americans would never achieve equality in the United States. The only peaceful and effective solution for them was to immigrate to Liberia and create a democracy there based on true freedom and equality for all citizens.
In this lesson, students examine Walker’s views in the Appeal and contrast them to the views of John Day. After reviewing background information and primary sources about the two polices, students will argue for or against the most beneficial policy for nineteenth-century African Americans.
Anchor Standard for Reading: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
American attitudes towards slavery underwent significant changes between the Revolution and Civil War, the period in which both David Walker and John Day lived. Both men were born in the 1790s, when liberal ideals of natural human freedom and equality were advocated and led many to question the legitimacy of human bondage. Some slave owners freed their slaves and accepted the presence of free blacks. Yet when both Walker and Day were approaching manhood, in the 1820s, they witnessed the growth of slavery as a response to the expansion of cotton cultivation. They also witnessed, and were greatly influenced by, the evangelical religious movements of the early nineteenth century that made slavery a moral issue. Sectional tensions, symbolized by the Missouri Compromise in 1821, revealed how politicized the conflict over slavery had become.
An increasingly militant antislavery movement was born during this era. Initially, antislavery advocates supported the American Colonization Society (ACS), formed in 1817, with the goal to end slavery gradually by sending consenting African Americans to Africa. But the ACS appeared to be more sympathetic to Southern slaveholders who wished to rid the country of blacks rather than be supportive of black freedom. By the late 1820s, distrust of the ACS was rising and a radical abolition movement centered in the urban North had emerged. In Boston, a vocal minority of free blacks promoted immediate emancipation.
Walker was a prominent member of this Boston free black community and by the time he published his Appeal in 1829, white as well as black abolitionists had mostly turned against the ACS. In 1830, William Lloyd Garrison started the American Anti-Slavery Society and published The Liberator, which endorsed immediate emancipation. In 1831, an enslaved Virginian, Nat Turner, led a violent slave rebellion. Both of these events polarized the views of slaveholders and abolitionists and from 1830–1860 the conflict between opposing views on slavery escalated.
While leaders on both sides of the aisles in Congress managed to subdue their differences on the topic until the late 1840s, the end of the Mexican War and the subsequent struggle to define the Western territories’ status regarding slavery triggered new hostilities that deepened in the 1850s. Southern governments adopted a siege mentality about the presence of African Americans in their midst. Liberties that free blacks had always enjoyed were rescinded. Some legislatures even pursued a course of enslaving those had lived their lives as free.
During this period, John Day wrote his editorial letter arguing that the future for racial equality, even for those who had already attained their freedom, was grim in America. In the next five years, free blacks in the South would see their options further limited, with the Dred Scott decision, which held that no person of African descent could ever be a citizen of the United States. By 1860, it had become clear that neither gradual or immediate emancipation would be possible in the United States without violence, and in 1861, the Civil War erupted.
In this activity students become familiar with two free black Southerners who came of age in the early 19th-century upper South through the brief biographies. Although David Walker and John Day had much in common, they held very different views about the prospects for their race in America and took divergent paths in their lives.
Using Activity 1. Assessment (student version), ask students to compare and contrast the biographical points of Walker and Day’s lives. What are the unique and common points in their biographies? Refer to Activity 1. Assessment, teacher's version, for the answer key.
Inform students that they will now compare the views of Walker and Day regarding the future for African Americans in the United States.
Using the Venn diagram in Activity 2. Assessment (student version), have students list major views of David Walker and John Day as well as those they held in common. Wherever possible have students provide examples of “quotations” from the two men that support their views. Consult Activity 2. Assessment, teacher’s version, for the answer key.
Ask students to write a short, five-paragraph essay explaining which view (either that of Walker or of Day) they supported and why. Encourage them to be specific about the reasons within the historical context of race relations in nineteenth-century America.
2 class periods