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Edwin Garrison Walker: An able lawyer and legislator

Anthony W. Neal | 7/4/2013, 6 a.m.

Described by one observer in 1894 as “one of the most noted men of his race, an orator of the highest ability, and a lawyer second to none in his profession,” Edwin Garrison Walker was born in Boston, Mass. in 1830 to Eliza and David Walker.

A year before his birth, his father, an outspoken abolitionist and anti-slavery activist, wrote the best-selling book, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World — an incendiary 78-page publication, urging enslaved black people to revolt against their captors. Edwin did not know his father, who died months before he was born.

Walker’s mother, Eliza, helped found the United Daughters of Zion in November 1845. Formed for the better protection of Boston’s black women, its aims were both benevolent and literary. Emblazoned on its banner were the words, “No Gentlemen Need Apply.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United Daughters of Zion was the oldest black women’s organization in the country.

After graduating from the public schools, Walker learned the Morocco leather trade. By 1857 he owned a leather shop employing fifteen men. On Nov. 15, 1858, he married Hannah Jane Van Vronker, a twenty-three year-old domestic from Lowell, Mass., and for the next eight or nine years they lived at 28 Belmont Street in Charlestown. The U.S. Federal Census for Charlestown reveals that by 1870 the couple had separated, Edwin Walker had fathered two children of the marriage — Edwin E., born about 1859, and Grace, born about 1864 — and he had moved to 36 Belmont Street with them. His mother, Eliza, lived there as well, “keeping house.”

But other evidence, namely the 1863 record of births in Lowell and the 1870 U.S. Federal Census for the same city, suggests that Edwin and Hannah Walker may have been the parents of a third child named Georgianna, likely born on June 28, 1863, and that by 1870 Georgianna Walker was living in Lowell with Hannah and her mother, Lucinda Van Vronker.

Edwin Walker took part in an important event in Boston’s history. When the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins was arrested in the city on Feb. 15, 1851 under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Walker — an anti-slavery activist like his father — conspired with Lewis Hayden, Robert Morris Sr. and members of the Boston Vigilance Committee to break into the old courthouse to rescue Minkins.

Shortly after that, Walker purchased a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries and other law texts and began studying law. He passed the bar examination in May 1861, becoming the fourth African American to gain admission to the Suffolk County Bar.

He gave up his leather business and, for a year or two, practiced law with John Q. A. Griffin in Charlestown. Then between 1863 and 1864, Walker opened his first law office there at 25 City Square. Always eager to assist those in legal trouble, he became an effective advocate and earned a reputation in the courts as an exceptional attorney.

As he grew in stature, his law practice grew as well. Walker’s ability did not escape the notice of members of the bench. Judges frequently assigned him to conduct the defense in important criminal cases, including several murder cases.