If you want to elicit the collective groan of archivists around the world, just ask out loud “Why aren’t the archives digitizing everything?” It sounds like a simple solution to access and preservation issues, but in reality, it’s anything but. Digitizing special collections can be much more complex than digitizing old family photos at home (although this is also a valid form of personal archiving). Materials must be arranged, described, curated, digitized, kept in a digital repository, and attached to a discovery layer designed for users to access across the globe. Each step requires specialized labor, which makes the process longer and more expensive than you might think – and it doesn’t even come in complicated formats like nitrate films or wax cylinders.
With limited resources, archivists constantly make decisions about prioritization. These decisions come into play when planning a digital collection. While we cannot be comprehensive in our work, we must tell a story with our selections and ensure that it is clear how and why our decisions were made. For a collection like Slavery, Abolition, Emancipation and Freedom: Primary Sources from the Houghton Library (SAEF), the selection criteria involved a number of factors, including physical fitness, frequency of citations in the field, and online availability. Some content was already available online, but in lower visual quality or behind paywalls. Some materials required too much repair and conservation to be ready on time. These practical concerns must be weighed against the intellectual project of building a coherent collection that has both awaited big names and unexpected rare discoveries.
The possibilities of transforming digital access might be a less expected factor in the curation process. For many archivists of a certain tradition, there can be no going beyond the personal experience of entering a reading room and handling physical records. Letters written by Frederick Douglass are significant not only for their content, now accessible online, but also for the emotional connection to the past that can be felt when you realize you are holding in your hands the same sheet of paper as one of the world’s most influential thinkers. 19th century . On the other hand, Special Collections Reading Rooms have handling and security rules that could restrict your research process in ways that completely disrupt digital access. These research possibilities are one of the reasons why our selection process led to the digitization of three different editions of David Walker’s book. Appeal in four articles: with a preamble to the citizens of color of the world, but in particular and very expressly to those of the United States of America.
The Houghton Library Reading Room is open to the public. You don’t have to be a Harvard student or professor to access our materials, or even be a student or professor anywhere – anyone interested is welcome. Reading room policies are designed to ensure the safety of staff and materials and are gently, but firmly, enforced. One of the most important of these rules is that visitors can only access one item at a time, whether it is a single rare book or a single box of archival documents. This rule closes the door to certain types of comparative research that are opened up by digital access, where materials can be compared on as many different screens in as many different windows as your computer can handle. The ability to compare and trace changes is key to studying authorial intent and the editing process, two themes that have been central to the study of Call from Walker.
David Walker was born into freedom in Wilmington, North Carolina in the late 18th century. Court decisions of the first republic chose to break with English common law and follow ancient Roman law which quia partus sequitur bellymor “the offspring follow the womb.“With a free mother and an enslaved father, Walker inherited legal freedom but also a deep awareness that the laws and practices surrounding black life in the United States were grossly unjust. Walker took advantage of his free legal status to travel across the states and engage in political activism, as a member of black churches and black social organizations like the Prince Hall Masons.
By 1826 he was living in Boston, married to Eliza Butler, a member of a prominent Boston black family and becoming increasingly known as a strong businessman and civil rights promoter. Walker was an active member of a thriving black community and was a founding member of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, described by Marc C. Arkin as “the most forward-thinking black civil rights organization of its time.” Kathyrn Grover and Janine V. da Silva, written for the National Park Servicedescribe a Boston neighborhood full of business owners, service workers, clergy and families all interacting in the community and busy with civil rights activism.
A page from the first edition of David Walker appeal
A page from the second edition of David Walker appeal
A page from the third edition of David Walker’s appeal
Few people could be considered as lively as Walker, who positively exploded into wider consciousness with the release of the first edition of appeal in 1829, and the sequel second edition and third editionboth in 1830. The fearless and fiery tone of Walker’s writing is as difficult in 2022 as it was in 1829. Everything about these publications was radical and dangerous, from the content of his message to, as Marcy argues J. Dinius, his editorial. decisions around typography. Dinius explains that
the four articles…preach the value of education, insist on racial unity, condemn the African colonization movement, warn white people of an impending apocalypse if slavery continues and, most controversially, promote violence as a form of legitimate, if not imminent, resistance.
Walker’s writing was bold in its arguments, especially in the sections that directly criticized the hypocrisy of White Christian supporters of slavery and who opposed the African colonization movement. Abolitionists who wanted an end to slavery in the United States did not necessarily want black people to remain in the United States as integrated citizens. Black and white abolitionists had arguments for moving liberated blacks to African colonies like Liberia and Sierra Leone, but Walker was strongly opposed to this solution and wanted equal rights in his country of birth. The writing shows Walker’s upbringing, using eloquent rhetoric that reflects black oratorical tradition and scathing punishments that did nothing for black oppression. The evolution of the text through the three editions shows a writer who sticks to his principles and remains firm. Dinius gives an example of this editorial evolution through a single sentence. In the first edition, Walker wrote “Are we men? – I ask you, O! my brothers, are we men? In the third edition, this line was printed under the title “Are WE MEN!” – I ask you, O my brothers! are we men?” The words remain the same, but the pacing and emphasis were changed as Walker finalized his thoughts.
the appeal captured readers’ attention in as dramatic a way as Walker could have imagined. In his book, Maria W. Stewart and the Roots of Black Political Thought, Kirsten Waters writes about how the pamphlet itself was seen as dangerous by pro-slavery forces, while Walker actively worked to get her text into the hands of black readers. He did not direct his writings to a white audience, and in the the third edition added a special message to black readerssay that:
It is expected that all colored men, women and children† of all nations, tongues and tongues under heaven will try to get hold of a copy of this call and read it, or ask someone to read it to them, because it is designed especially for them.
the footnote under this dagger gives one of the clearest indications of the impossibility of underestimating Walker’s audacity and the clarity of his pro-black message:
†Who are not too deceitful, abject and servile to stand up to the cruelties and murders inflicted on us by the owners of white slaves, our enemies by nature.
With such a strong and fiery voice, and with his active support of freedom by any means necessary, Walker appeal was received by the slave states of the South as an active threat. Walker knew that black people in those areas needed his inspirational arguments the most and he worked, sometimes illegally, to distribute the materials throughout the South. Sailors played an important role in bringing pamphlets south from Boston. Walker ran a second-hand clothing business on the Boston waterfront, buying second-hand clothes from sailors, repairing them, and reselling them to other sailors. Peter Hinks in his book To Awaken My Sorrowful Brethren: David Walker and the Problem of Pre-War Slave Resistance tell how the appeal was smuggled in by being sewn into the liners of garments sold to black sailors.
the Call’s impact has not been relegated to the South. Lori Leavell writes about the recirculation of the pamphlet through publication in northern newspapers like the Philadelphia plaintiff and the Ev. from New Yorkandning Post. Leveall argues that the republication of portions of the pamphlets directly influenced northern perceptions of black radicalism. So great was Walker’s infamy and perceived radicalizing power appeal newspapers even refused to mention the title, referring to it only as “this incendiary pamphlet.” The third edition of the brochure of the SAEF reflects the text’s popularity through the marginalia of its original owner, the Reverend Frederick West Holland, a Unitarian minister from Concord, Massachusetts. Holland wrote two notes on the cover of the pamphlet, giving some insight into its reception: “A famous incendiary pamphlet which was much complained about in South! Entirely written by a nigger-“
by David Walker appeal was a living text with three revisions in two years. When selecting materials for a digital collection, there will always be materials that get left out. There are also occasions where it is clearly helpful to provide documents that are actively in conversation with each other, even when they appear to be the same text three times!
See the list below for further reading.