'A Mover of Insubordination': U.Va. Library Acquires Historic Copy of Anti-Slavery Rhetoric

March 1, 2011 — It sits quietly in a small exhibition case in the outer hall of the Albert and Shirley Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. But the little book with the long title is one of the most impassioned and influential essays ever written about America's struggle with slavery.

First published in 1829, David 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" is a significant political statement that galvanized its readers and sent Southern states racing to stop its distribution. It also alarmed detractors in the North, who opposed Walker's appeal for violence. The book is extraordinarily rare. The copy acquired by the U.Va. Library is one of only seven currently known to exist.

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"We never believed we'd have the chance to acquire this," said Edward Gaynor, head of collection development and description for the Small Library. "It's a seminal piece of African-American anti-slavery philosophy and rhetoric."

Gaynor described how Walker, who was born in 1785 in North Carolina to an enslaved father and free mother, takes Thomas Jefferson to task for the demeaning statements Jefferson wrote about African-Americans in "Notes on the State of Virginia," a copy of which is also in the Special Collections Library. "Others had criticized the remarks but done so privately," Gaynor said. "This was a public calling-out of Jefferson."

The drama doesn't end there. Gaynor said that Walker moved to Boston, where he ran a used clothing store that catered to black sailors. It is possible, Gaynor said, that the 76-page "Appeal" was sewn into the linings of clothes and smuggled into the Southern states, ensuring its distribution despite the states' efforts to find and destroy it.

Walker published two other editions of the pamphlet, but his sudden death in 1830 and the aggressive suppression of the "Appeal" throughout the country effectively silenced his voice in the growing abolitionist movement. However, "Walker’s Appeal" and its call for self-empowerment would resonate through the 20th century's Civil Rights Movement.

"The acquisition of David Walker's 'Appeal' would spell good fortune for any library, but particularly for the University of Virginia," said Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at U.Va.

"Walker quarreled specifically with Jefferson's influential notion that blacks were 'inferior to the whites in … endowments both of body and mind,' and urged blacks to commit themselves to its refutation," she said. "Scholars have rightly termed the 'Appeal' a declaration of independence for black Americans and linked it to the long tradition of political dissent and pamphleteering, as well as to the beginnings of American abolitionism."

The University's copy of the "Appeal" (another copy of which can be viewed online)  was acquired with funds from the Robert and Virginia Tunstall Trust, a private endowment set up to build U.Va.'s special collections. "It's a major piece of American history," Gaynor said. "It fits in so many ways what this special collections library is about: teaching, learning and researching the history of African-Americans, Thomas Jefferson – and America itself."

The Small Special Collections Library is free and open to the public Monday through Saturday.

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