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Rare Anti-slavery Booklet Acquired by University of Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. ­- The University of Virginia has acquired a rare first edition of an 1829 anti-slavery manifesto that was considered a rallying cry for Black Americans and a major threat to Southern leaders, who worked vigorously to ban it.

The copy of abolitionist David Walker’s “Appeal in Four Articles; Together With a Preamble to the Coloured Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America” is one of seven known to still exist. The pamphlet is on display at U.Va.’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

A private endowment for U.Va.’s special collections recently acquired it from a New Jersey rare-book dealer for $95,000, university officials said Thursday.

“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,” said Deborah McDowell, director of U.Va.’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies.

In the 76-page, 8 1/2-inch-by-5-inch pamphlet, Walker urged slaves to rise up against their owners, and argued for the abolition of slavery on moral and Christian theological grounds.

“It really was the very first document in the United States to call for the immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery,” said Harry L. Watson, director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of the American South.

A free Black man’s direct incitement to slave revolt was “highly explosive and highly illegal,” Watson said.

“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?” Walker wrote. “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.”

Walker was born in Wilmington, N.C., to a slave father and a free mother. He moved to Boston during the 1820s and ran a secondhand clothing store patronized by free Black sailors. It’s believed that the “Appeal” was sewn into their garments’ linings and smuggled into the South, Watson said.

“They’d stop at ports such as Richmond, Petersburg, Charleston, and Wilmington,”

Watson said. “Then they’d slip out into the Black community and locate people who knew how to read and slip them this pamphlet. Of course, the pamphlets were discovered, and there was widespread panic in state governments.”

The tract’s circulation alarmed slaveowners and Southern politicians, and cash rewards were offered for Walker’s death. The pamphlet was a major factor behind the passage of legislation aimed at controlling slaves and free Blacks, including laws penalizing anyone who taught Black people how to read as well as banning the distribution of anti-slavery writings.

“Appeal in Four Articles” also singled out the third president and Declaration of Independence author Thomas Jefferson, who died three years before the pamphlet’s initial publication. Walker criticized Jefferson’s assertion that Black people were inferior to Whites, and said that such statements posed a threat to true American democracy.

“I say that unless we refute Mr. Jefferson’s arguments respecting us, we will only establish them,” Walker wrote.

Walker published two subsequent editions of the “Appeal in Four Articles,” but died suddenly in 1830. Some thought he was a victim of poisoning, but other scholars say he succumbed to tuberculosis.

Many of the pamphlet’s ideas endured, and its themes were carried forward by abolitionists and 20th century civil-rights leaders alike.

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