His body was allegedly found slumped in the doorway of his home. Soon word began to spread in Boston’s Black community that David Walker had been murdered, probably poisoned.
In the context of the time, the belief was hardly surprising: Walker was a marked man. Southern planters and political leaders, alarmed by the Appeal and its call for slaves to rebel, were desperate to silence him. The governor of Georgia offered a reward of $10,000 for Walker’s capture. It was said that bounty hunters, eager to cash in on the reward, had been stalking Walker.
Was David Walker assassinated? Or is the claim of foul play just the stuff of urban folklore?
Boston city records and a report in the Boston Daily Courier newspaper state that Walker died of “consumption” – that is, tuberculosis. TB and other kinds of contagious lung disease were widespread in Boston at that time. Indeed, Walker’s daughter, Lydia, had died of consumption just a week before her father’s death on August 6, 1830.
But many African Americans of the time didn’t buy the official explanation, and that skepticism has persisted among succeeding generations. It’s been pointed out that the small Black community on the North Slope of Beacon Hill was close knit, that residents knew each other’s business, and that some past murders in the community had been ignored or covered up. Moreover, Walker could have contracted TB but still have been murdered.
Weighing the known facts and circumstances, historian Peter Hinks, in his biography of Walker, To Awaken My Afflicted Brethren, concludes that “available sources… strongly support a natural death from a common and virulent urban disease of the nineteenth century.”
DECISION, DILEMMA AND DOUBT
By Horace Seldon
Anyone who reads of David Walker, guided by the extensive research of his biographer, Peter Hinks, can face a difficult decision in judging “history”. For me, that difficult “moment” comes when I am confronted by two divergent views that demand a decision.
When Walker died in 1830, there was a clear community “conviction” that his body was found outside the door to his home, or near the door to his clothing store. The community “word” also was that the cause of death had not been investigated. A variety of “explanations” for his death were offered in the community.
During my years as a guide for Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, I have escorted hundreds of visitors to the site of what was once Walker’s home on the North Slope of Beacon Hill. I have told of his death, and posed a question which is a common one as we make decisions about what happened in any historical moment. On the one side is the evidence of those varying community ideas about the death. On the other is the written record, uncovered by Peter Hinks’ careful research: in the City of Boston Index of Deaths, located in the Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths, a death date for David Walker is recorded, along with the cause of death defined as “consumption”. There is also written reference to the designated cemetery where he was buried and the lot number for the gravesite.
As a public historian untrained academically in the study of history, I had/have a dilemma: “Believe what the public records say, or believe what the community said?” As I ponder my decision on this question, I must also account for the fact that today many visitors to the Black Heritage Trail accept most readily the “community” word. I must take into account, too, a personal conviction to which I have come as a community organizer: Always listen carefully to what the “community” says. It is fundamental to me as an “historian”, and it’s a lesson I have learned many times.
Let me give one example – an event that created a major public “storm” here in Boston a little over twenty years ago.
A white couple has visited a hospital for child-birthing lessons, and they are heading home in their car. The husband is driving; his wife is beside him in the front seat. They come close to an area known as “black”. The wife is shot in her pregnant body, and dies several hours later in hospital; her traumatized baby survives in intensive care for 17 days. The husband claims that the assailant was a black man who forced his way into the car at a stoplight. Police launch a manhunt, and a suspect is arrested. The white-controlled mainstream media blares the news across the headlines for days. The suspect is effectively “convicted” by the media, and the city’s wider community is in a vengeful uproar.
About two or three days after the stabbing, I visit with a few friends in a small black church in the community where the attack had allegedly taken place. They all say firmly and without doubt: no, the stabbing did not happen like that. Their opinion receives comparatively little public attention or media coverage.
Thirteen weeks later, the white man who had claimed his wife had been shot by the black suspect now in custody confesses to his lawyer that he’d actually done the deed himself. He commits suicide by jumping from a bridge into the Mystic River.
The lesson for me: listen to the community. Listen!
So what to do with the Walker “community”, while holding in our hands the words Peter Hinks found and shared from a clear public record? It’s a question that exemplifies the dilemmas and doubts at the root of any quest for historical accuracy.
Horace Seldon is a community organizer and public historian. He spent 12 years as a National Park Ranger for the Boston African-American National Historic Site. In 1968, Horace co-founded Community Change, Inc., an anti-racist learning and action organization.