|Nationality||British, United States of America|
|Occupation||Slave, farm worker|
|Known for||Won his freedom based on unconstitutionality of slavery in Massachusetts|
Quock Walker, also known as Kwaku or Quok Walker (b. 1753 - d. unknown), was an American slave who sued for and won his freedom in June 1781 in a case citing language in the new Massachusetts Constitution (1780) that declared all men to be born free and equal. The case is credited with helping abolish slavery in Massachusetts, although the 1780 constitution was never amended to explicitly prohibit the practice. Massachusetts was the first state of the union to effectively abolish slavery (although the independent Vermont Republic had done so in 1777). By the 1790 federal census, no slaves were recorded in the state.
Quock Walker was born in Massachusetts in 1753 to slaves Mingo and Dinah, who were believed to be of Ghanaian origins. He is believed to have been named Kwaku in Akan, for "boy born on Wednesday", a traditional day-naming practice among the Akan people. The following year, the entire family was bought by James Caldwell, of the prominent Caldwell family of Worcester County. Quock was promised his freedom at the age of 25 by Caldwell. Caldwell died when Quock was ten, but his widow renewed the promise, agreeing to give him his freedom at the age of 21. The widowed Mrs. Caldwell married Nathaniel Jennison in 1763 and died about 1772, when Walker was 19.
When the time came for Walker's promised manumission, Jennison refused to let him go. In 1781, Walker, then aged 28, ran away. He went to work at a nearby farm belonging to Seth and John Caldwell, brothers of his former master. Jennison retrieved him and beat him severely as punishment. Soon after, Walker sued Jennison for battery, and Jennison sued the Caldwells for enticing Walker away from him.
By the mid-18th century, enslavement of Africans had become common practice in Massachusetts. A 1754 census listed nearly 4500 slaves in the colony. Abolitionist sentiment had been growing, especially as the philosophical underpinnings of independence and democracy became common parlance in the colony. While Massachusetts had derived wealth from the Triangle Trade, its merchant and mixed economy was not dependent on slave labor to the extent of southern states.
There were three trials related to these events, two civil and one criminal. These took place during the American Revolutionary War, when language about the equality of people was in the air and after the new Massachusetts constitution had been passed in 1780. The civil cases were : Jennison v. Caldwell (for "deprivation of the benefit of his servant, Walker"), apparently heard and decided first, and Quock Walker v. Jennison (for assault and battery), both heard by the Worcester County Court of Common Pleas on June 12, 1781.
In the first case, Jennison argued that Caldwell had enticed away his employee Walker. The court found in his favor and awarded him 25 pounds. The Walker case was opened by the attorney considering the question of whether a previous master’s promise to free Walker gave him a right to freedom after that master had died. Walker's lawyers argued that the concept of slavery was contrary to the Bible and the new Massachusetts Constitution (1780). The jury voted that Walker was a free man under the constitution and awarded him 50 pounds in damages.
Both decisions were appealed. Jennison's appeal of Walker's freedom was tossed out in September 1781 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, either because he failed to appear or because his lawyers did not submit the required court papers. The Caldwells won the other appeal; a jury concurred that Walker was a free man, and therefore the defendants were entitled to employ him.
In September 1781, a third case was filed by the Attorney General against Jennison, Commonwealth v. Jennison, for criminal assault and battery of Walker. In his charge to the jury, Chief Justice William Cushing stated, "Without resorting to implication in constructing the constitution, slavery is…as effectively abolished as it can be by the granting of rights and privileges wholly incompatible and repugnant to its existence." This has been taken as setting the groundwork for the end of slavery in the state. On April 20, 1783, Jennison was found guilty and fined 40 shillings.
Aftermath of the trials
The state never formally abolished slavery until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1869. Legislators were unable or unwilling to address either slave-owners' concerns about losing their "investment", or white citizens' concerns that if slavery were abolished, freed slaves could become a burden on the community. Some feared that escaped slaves from elsewhere would flood the state.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court decisions in Walker v. Jennison and Commonwealth v. Jennison established the basis for ending slavery in Massachusetts on constitutional grounds, but no law or amendment to the state constitution was passed. Instead slavery gradually ended "voluntarily" in the state over the next decade. The decisions in the Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker trials had removed its legal support and slavery was said to end by erosion. Some masters manumitted their slaves formally and arranged to pay them wages for continued labor. Other slaves were "freed" but were restricted as indentured servants for extended periods. By 1790, the federal census recorded no slaves in the state.
- Elizabeth Freeman, also known as "Mum Bett", a slave who won her freedom in county court in 1781, and whose case was cited as a precedent in Walker v. Jennison
- Walker Lewis, Quock Walker's nephew, who was ordained as one of the first African-American Mormon Elders
- O'Donovan, Connell. "Descendants of Mingo and Dinah: From West Africa to Colonial Massachusetts". O'Donovan website, hosted at University of California, Santa Cruz. Retrieved September 12, 2010.
- O'Donovan, Connell (2006; revised undated version online at O'Donovan website). "Mormon Priesthood & Elder Walker Lewis: 'An example for his more whiter brethren to follow'". John Whitmer Historical Association Journal (Independence, Missouri: O'Donovan website, hosted at University of California, Santa Cruz) 26: 47–99. Retrieved September 12, 2010.
- Teddi Di Canio. "The Quock Walker Trials: 1781-83 - Suggestions For Further Reading". Law Library (law.jrank.org). Retrieved October 4, 2009.
- Piper, Emilie; Levinson, David (2010). One Minute a Free Woman: Elizabeth Freeman and the Struggle for Freedom. Salisbury, CT: Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area. ISBN 978-0-9845492-0-7.
- Moore, George H. (1866). Notes on the history of slavery in Massachusetts. NY NY: D. Appleton & Co. p. 51. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
- "Quock Walker". Massachusetts Historical Society (masshist.org). Retrieved October 4, 2009.
- "Massachusetts Constitution, Judicial Review, and Slavery - The Quock Walker Case". mass.gov. Retrieved November 10, 2010.
- Arthur Zilversmit, The First Emancipation: The Abolition of Slavery in the North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 114
- Rose, Ben Z. (2009). Mother of Freedom: Mum Bett and the Roots of Abolition. Waverly, Massachusetts: Treeline Press. ISBN 978-0-9789123-1-4.
- Moore, George H. (1866). Notes on the history of slavery in Massachusetts. NY NY: D. Appleton & Co. p. 247. Retrieved July 26, 2010.
- "Quock Walker Case", Africans in America, PBS-WGBH
- Martha Mayo, "Profiles in Courage: African Americans in Lowell", Center for Lowell History, University of Massachusetts Lowell