Q. Walker Lewis (1798-1856)

Salt Lake City in 1850
Salt Lake City in 1850
Public Domain Image

Quack Walker Lewis, Black abolitionist, barber, AND elder (priest) in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was born in Barre, Worcester County, Massachusetts, on August 3, 1798. His father, Peter P. Lewis, was a free Black yeoman farmer in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, and his mother, Minor Walker Lewis, was born a slave in Worcester County. Peter and Minor had a total of eleven children, all of whom were born free and part of the Black middle class in Massachusetts.

Walker Lewis’s involvement with abolitionism was a central component of his family’s history. He was named after his maternal uncle, Quacko (Kwaku) Walker. Quacko’s parents maintained Ghanaian naming practices (Kwaku means “boy born on Saturday”). Quacko and his parents were slaves in Worcester County, Massachusetts. In two legal cases in 1781 and 1783, Quacko obtained his freedom from Nathaniel Jennison. Quacko v. Jennison (1781) and Jennison v. Caldwell et al (1783) are cited as legal precedents for ending slavery in Massachusetts. With this genealogy of slavery and emancipation, Walker Lewis assisted in the formation of the Massachusetts General Colored Association (MGCA) in 1826.

That year, Lewis and other prominent Black abolitionists, including David Walker (no relation), formed the MGCA, the first all-Black abolitionist organization in the United States, and in 1829, it released David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. This treatise called for the complete emancipation of slaves, armed insurrection (if necessary), and disfavor of African colonization. The MGCA later merged with William Lloyd Garrison’s New England Anti-Slavery Society, which was then renamed the Boston Anti-Slavery Society.

Walker Lewis married Elizabeth Lovejoy in 1826, shortly before he helped found the MGCA. He also established his first barbershop in Tewksbury, a town that was later annexed by Lowell. By 1830, Walker Lewis had two successful barbershops in Lowell and Boston and specialized in children’s haircuts. Along with Prince Hall, Lewis helped establish the Grand African Lodge of Freemasons when he signed the 1827 Declaration of Independence from the Lodge of England. He served as grand master of Boston’s African Lodge from 1829 through 1831. Lewis and several of his family members also formed one node of the Underground Railroad.

Walker Lewis was baptized in the LDS Church by Parley P. Pratt in 1843 and was ordained an elder (priest) by William Smith, younger brother of Joseph Smith, by 1844. Lewis was one of the few Black Mormons in the clergy; the other known priest was Elijah Abel, ordained by Joseph Smith. Lewis migrated to Utah Territory and arrived in Salt Lake City in late September 1851. By October of 1852, Lewis returned to Lowell.

The turn in race relations in the LDS church marked Lewis’s short stay in the Utah Territory. Lewis received his blessing from John Smith (uncle of Joseph Smith and patriarch of the LDS Church), which accorded Lewis spiritual guidance and the revelation that he belonged to the Tribe of Canaan, the tribe reserved for Black Mormons. Two leaders of the church, Brigham Young and William Appleby, protested the ordination of Black Mormons because of the curse of Ham. They also opposed interracial sexual relationships between black and white members of the church and knew that Lewis’s son had married a white Mormon in 1847. Upon becoming the second president of the church in 1847, Young made these ideas the central tenets of the Mormon faith. He also allowed slavery in the Utah Territory. When Lewis returned to Lowell in 1852, he was not active in the LDS Church. He passed away on October 26, 1856, from tuberculosis.