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David Walker's appeal

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment is a look at slavery and David Walker, the son of a slave whose writing in 1829 incensed slave owners and stirred slaves to action.

It is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Slavery is as old as civilization, as the authors of African American History note. But it was the exploration and colonization of the "New World" that made slavery profitable, the authors write.

Those in the South at the time called it the "peculiar institution." Plantation owners argued that they couldn't survive without it. If they had to pay for labor, the costs of goods they produced, structures they built, services they provided would be prohibitively expensive.

Regardless, slavery made it possible for the fledgling nation to blossom into a world power.

European settlers had tried to enslave the Indians they discovered when they landed on the shores of North America. But the Native Americans died in large numbers after contracting various diseases. They also resisted enslavement. It was easier to capture and import Africans. The trade was so lucrative for slave-carrying ships (called slavers) that their human cargo became known as "black gold."

In 1619, the first slave ship from Africa hit the shores of what would become the United States. But Africans walked these lands as adventurers and explorers more than a century before that.

From the 17th century until the end of the Civil War, slavery existed in the colonies, then in the United States.Vestiges of that system remain today, some anthropologists insist.

During that period impassioned pleas against slavery were offered by abolitionists, white and black. Abolitionists insisted slavery was reprehensible. No person should own another person, they said. Many argued for a peaceable end to slavery. But not David Walker.

Walker's father was a slave but David Walker (1785-1830) was born a free man. But he hated slavery so much that he advocated violence to end it. He called upon slaves to revolt and kill their owners and overseers so they could escape to freedom.

In 1829, Walker published a pamphlet, called Walker's Appeal, that outlined his proposals. It infuriated the slave owners and stirred slaves to action. The state of Georgia offered a dead-or-alive reward for him: $10,000, alive; $1,000, dead. Other states banned the pamphlet altogether. But still its word spread. It was secretly passed from plantation to plantation, slave to slave. It was so popular that it went into three printings.

One day Walker disappeared. It was widely speculated that he was murdered. But his Appeal lived on. Following is an excerpt:

Can our condition be any worse? Can it be more mean and abject? If there are any changes, will they not be for the better, though they may appear for the worst at first? Can they get us any lower? Where can they get us?. . . How would they like for us to make slaves of, and hold them in cruel slavery, and murder them as they do us? . . .

Now, I ask you, had you not rather be killed than to be a slave to a tyrant, who takes the life of your mother, wife, and dear little children? Look upon your mother, wife, and children, and answer God Almighty; and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man, who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty; in fact, the man who will stand still and let another murder him, is worse than an infidel, and, if he has common sense, ought not to be pitied. . . .

But Americans, I declare to you, while you keep us and our children in bondage, and treat us like brutes, to make us support you and your families, we cannot be your friends. You do not look for it, do you? Treat us then like men, and we will be your friends. And there is not a doubt in my mind, but that the whole of the past will be sunk into oblivion, and we yet, under God, will become a united and happy people. The whites may say it impossible, but remember that nothing is impossible with God.

Sources: African American History, Negro Almanac, A History in Their Own Words

Discussion questions

1. Why was slavery called that "peculiar institution"?

2. What was the Middle Passage? How many people were estimated to have survived it and how many didn't? Why is it impossible to assign definite numbers to these categories?

3. Define slavery, abolition and manumission.