On this dayNov 15, 1830

North Carolina Legislature Mandates Death Sentence for Repeated Dissemination of Anti-Slavery Pamphlet

Library of Congress

On November 15, 1830, North Carolina passed two laws designed to limit the influence of an anti-slavery pamphlet and discourage its dissemination, mandating the punishment of death for those who twice violated the law. About a year earlier, in September 1829, David Walker, a free Black abolitionist and activist living in Boston, Massachusetts, published An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. The anti-slavery pamphlet advocated for racial equality and called for free and enslaved Black people to actively challenge injustice, racial oppression, and the institution of slavery.

The Appeal was the first published document to demand the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of enslaved people in America. Mr. Walker also indirectly targeted his pamphlet to white readers, urging them to cease their inhumane treatment of enslaved people.

The pamphlet was quickly and clandestinely circulated among Black people, especially in the South, inciting anger among many white people and sometimes swift and harsh punishment. Jacob Cowan, a literate enslaved man in North Carolina, was sold “downriver” to Alabama after he was caught with 200 copies of the pamphlet for distribution to other enslaved people in the community. Copies of the pamphlet found by Southern officials were destroyed, the State of Georgia offered a bounty for Mr. Walker’s capture, and several Southern states—like North Carolina—eventually passed laws to further oppress both enslaved and free Black people.

Titled "An Act to Prevent the Circulation of Seditious Publications," North Carolina's first law banned bringing into the state any publication with the tendency to inspire revolution or resistance among enslaved or free Black people; a first violation of the law was punishable by whipping and one-year imprisonment, while those convicted of a second offense would “suffer death without benefit of clergy.”

The second law forbade all persons in the state from teaching the enslaved to read and write. A white person convicted of violating the law would be subject to a $100-200 fine or imprisonment; a free Black person would face a fine, imprisonment, or between 20 and 39 lashes; and an enslaved Black person convicted of teaching other enslaved people to read or write would receive 39 lashes.

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