The name of Abraham Galloway, whose ascent from slavery to the state legislature was a story nearly forgotten to the passing of time, will soon be a permanent fixture on the streets of downtown Wilmington.
The slave-turned-senator—one of the first black men elected to serve in the North Carolina Senate—is remembered on the 70th highway historical marker to be placed in New Hanover County, unveiled today in a well-attended ceremony.
About a dozen descendants of Galloway were among those who gathered Friday morning at the northeast corner of Third and Bladen streets, where the marker will be located. Presenters said the marker, which is being kept in storage, will be placed at the corner permanently after nearby construction is finished.
City, county and state officials were on hand for the ceremony, organized by the city’s Commission on African-American History. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who was among those who spoke, called Galloway a freedom fighter whose story is one of remarkable courage.
“Taking into consideration that Abraham Galloway went from a slave to a senator is incredible,” Saffo said. “And taking into consideration what he had to go through, what he had to endure—he was a true freedom fighter.
“He wanted to do his part in not only preserving the Union but to free slaves, to free his fellow humans from slavery,” Saffo said. “He could have been killed, he could’ve been captured—all kinds of torturous things that would have been done to him. But to be able to go out and do that with strength and no fear was incredible during those times.”
Saffo’s and others’ comments painted a picture of Galloway’s life, which started in Southport—then-Smithville—in 1837. The son of a an enslaved woman and a free white man, Galloway spent much of his life in Wilmington, where he escaped slavery by stowing away on a turpentine ship, joined the abolitionist movement and returned to the South as a spy and an agent of the Underground Railroad.
He helped others escape slavery, including his mother, and recruited men to serve in the Union Army. After the war, he became one of the country’s first civil rights activists, and in 1864, he led a delegation of southern black representatives to meet with President Abraham Lincoln.
He was elected to serve in the 1868 Constitutional Convention in Raleigh, followed by his election to the state Senate, where he represented New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
Historian David Cecelski, who wrote the Galloway biography “The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway & the Slaves’ Civil War,” told attendees arguments could be made for putting the marker elsewhere, so such as Southport, New Bern, Beaufort or Raleigh.
“But Wilmington was really his world,” he said. “This is where the marker should be.”
Cecelski noted his reliance on former librarian Beverly Tetterton and other staff at the New Hanover County Library to help him research Galloway’s life, which he said was not easily learned.
“Bringing back the story of someone like Abraham Galloway, it is not an easy thing,” Cecelski said. “Galloway was never able to learn to read or write, so he didn’t leave the kind of records that historians usually use to recreate a life. Once he’s a spy for the Union Army, he’s trying not to leave a record. That’s what spies do.
“Galloway’s story could not have been brought back to life without all of that. And beyond all the help with the research for the book and recovering Galloway’s story, I can’t tell you how much it matters to have people care about the story.
“This was a hard thing to do, to find Galloway,” he said. “He may have been the most famous African-American man in North Carolina in his time, but he had been completely covered up.”
Now, with the marker, Galloway’s name will be on full display to everyone who travels through Wilmington’s bustling Third Street corridor. The marker’s text reads: “Abraham Galloway, 1837-1870—Former slave. Freedom fighter; Union recruiter and spy; legislator. Led a delegation that met President Lincoln, 1864. Lived one block east.”
“I think Galloway could have been born at any moment, in any time, and he would have been fighting for freedom and justice wherever he was,” Cecelski said. “No world has been created that would have been good enough for Abraham Galloway.
“He was the most important African-American leader, the most stirring and significant in Civil War America, and he’s a native son of Wilmington and Brunswick and New Hanover counties, and North Carolina, and it’s just wonderful to see so many people here being proud of their native son.”
Friday’s ceremony also honored the late Glancy Thomas, a past chairwoman of the Commission on African-American History. A resolution recognizing Thomas’ contributions to the city was read by the mayor and presented to family members.