The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA (AP) – Randall Burkett still remembers the phone call.
A book dealer in New Jersey called him on behalf of a private owner of a copy of David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.
“He called and said, ‘We got this and would you be interested?’” said Burkett, the founding curator of Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library’s African American collection.
Up until about three months ago, there were only six known original copies of Walker’s Appeal, which was originally written in 1829 by a free Black man as a scathing and controversial rebuke of slavery.
It is thought to be the first book written and published by an African American, and while Walker has been lost to everyone aside from scholars, his writings have been considered the bedrock of Black nationalism.
In addition, the dealer said that this particular copy was once owned by W.E.B. Du Bois, the noted civil rights activist, historian and writer, who also taught at Atlanta University.
Burkett got on a plane to New Jersey.
“After I saw it, my first thought, was ‘How are we going to find the money to do this?”’ he said.
Burkett won’t say how much he paid for the book, but it is safe to say that any rare copy of Walker’s Appeal, as it is commonly known, is priceless. This 1829 edition is one of three first editions that can be found in libraries. The remaining four early editions, also scattered in libraries, are from 1830.
At Emory’s Rose Library, it will now be studied alongside first editions of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773); J.A.U. Gronniosaw’s A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, An African Prince (1790); and Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac (1793).
“We have such a strong collection here and this just enhances it,” Burkett said. “It also enhances the awareness and opportunity for research here.”
But Pellom McDaniels III, a faculty curator of the African American Collections, said the discovery is a little more personal for Burkett.
“For him, this is nirvana,” McDaniels said.
Earlier this month, McDaniels carefully removed the book from its protective glass case and placed it on a foam podium. He noted the smell of the book. A warm aroma of wood and vanilla emitting from the cracked cardboard edges and weathered 187-year-old pages.
He gently opened it to the front fly where Du Bois’ name is signed in cursive.
Du Bois’ stamp is on the title page – which offers the full name of the book, Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with A Preamble to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America.
Throughout the book, McDaniels points out places where Du Bois marked through it.
In Du Bois’ 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn, he wrote that Walker’s Appeal was a “tremendous indictment of slavery,” and recognized its importance as the first “program of organized opposition to the action and attitude of the dominant white group.”
McDaniels takes it even further and suggests that Du Bois was talking to Walker in his 1903 Souls of Black Folk.
“The book itself is a landmark of political protest and eloquent articulation of the demand for freedom for people of African descent in the United States,” McDaniels said. “It is as important for African American political and social history as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man; it is a demand for freedom and a call to arms.”
Walker was born around 1785 near Wilmington, North Carolina. His father was a slave, but his mother was free, making Walker free.
Walker’s mother imparted in him that Blacks should be free, so to assure that, he left the slave state of North Carolina and traveled, eventually settling in Boston in 1825. Self-educated, he opened a second-hand clothing store and wrote for and distributed Freedom’s Journal, the first African American periodical in the country.
By 1828, Walker was Boston’s leading spokesman against slavery.
A year later, he published his “Appeal,” where he argued that America belonged more to Blacks than to Whites because “we have enriched it with our blood and tears.”
If there were any doubts where he was coming from, he settled it very early in the 76-page pamphlet.
“We Coloured People of these United States, are, the most wretched, degraded and abject set of beings that ever lived since the world began, down to the present day, and, that, the white Christians of America, who hold us in slavery, (or, more properly speaking, pretenders to Christianity,) treat us more cruel and barbarous than any Heathen nation did any people whom it had subjected, or reduced to the same condition. The Blacks or Coloured People, are treated more cruel by the white Christians of America, than devils themselves ever treated a set of men, women and children on this earth.”
Walker goes on to argue that Blacks and slaves should violently overthrow the institution of slavery. The book was considered so radical and revolutionary in its call to arms that even abolitionists condemned it as inflammatory.
“Walker’s Appeal operated on many levels,” said Chris Apap, who wrote about Walker in his forthcoming book, The Genius of Place: The Geographic Imagination in the Early Republic. “It was a call for a distinctly American national identity for free Blacks in the U.S., a withering attack on the institution of slavery, a critique of racism, a negative assessment of free Black apathy, a celebration of literacy as a means to power and a deeply felt expression of Christian faith in a future that would upend the oppression of African Americans.”
Still, Walker used a covert network of African Americans, including seamen, to move copies of the book across the country, including into the hands of Southern slaves, where it could be read aloud and in secret to small groups.
“The audacity of this free Black man, to call on slaves to give their lives for freedom,” McDaniels said. “This was something out of the ordinary. To have this very clear, defined pamphlet of what had to happen, was not good.”
A second edition of the Appeal came out a year later, increasing the pressure on Walker. A $10,000 bounty was put on his head to deliver him South. The mayor of Savannah even called on the Boston mayor to stop Walker from publishing a third edition.
But by 1830, Walker was mysteriously dead. Many scholars contend that Walker was assassinated, possibly poisoned. Others believe that as Walker’s daughter did a few weeks earlier, he died of tuberculosis.
With Walker dead, the book was suppressed. Any Black person, especially a Southern one, found with it was arrested or killed.
Alvelyn Sanders, the pastor of Greater St. Paul A.M.E. in Florence, Alabama, believes that her church’s founding pastor, the Rev. Robin Lightfoot, was a follower of Walker’s.
During the Civil War, Lightfoot preached to his parishioners that slavery was not intended for them. Shortly after that sermon, men on horseback came looking for him.
“He was captured and hanged for that message,” Sanders said.
The book and Walker seemed to fade away.
“But Nat Turner happened in 1831,” said Burkett about the slave revolt that saw 50 White people and 200 Blacks die. “We don’t know if he read it. But he answered the real call.”
It is unclear if Black abolition voices that followed like Martin Delany, Maria Stewart, Henry Highland Garnet or even Frederick Douglass read Walker. But scholars believe that the Appeal laid a clear foundation for nationalism that carries today, even through the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Calling for Black people to be able to first affirm that their lives matter, I believe that’s what Mr. Walker was asking us to do as well,” said Sanders, who teaches the Appeal as part of humanities courses at Atlanta Metropolitan College. “If you can start with that self-affirmation, then, you can go forward with the message to the community at large.”