Who was North Carolina’s greatest civil-rights hero?

Hundreds, even thousands, of North Carolinians in the 1960’s can claim hero status. But their quest for justice and equality were inspired by men and women who fought bravely a hundred years before them.

My choice for the greatest comes from those early times. About 10 years ago, I read David Cecelski’s “The Waterman’s Song.”  It introduced me to Abraham Galloway, an ex-slave from Wilmington who became an incredible leader of blacks in North Carolina during the Civil War and later in state government. Cecelski described how Galloway packed into his short life a story of an escape from slavery, intrigue and dedication, leadership and audacity that could compete with those of a fictional spy like James Bond as well as extraordinary political vision and achievements.

Galloway was the son of a white father and a slave mother.  His slave master trained him as a brick mason and allowed him to work on his own, provided that he brought in at least $15 a month.

In 1857, Galloway escaped and made his way to Philadelphia, and later to Canada, where he gained employment at $1.75 a day.  Soon he was back in the United States, giving antislavery speeches and associating himself with the abolitionist movement.

As the Civil War began, Galloway returned to the South where he participated in intelligence activities for the Union in areas controlled by the Confederates.

When Union forces captured New Bern in March 1862, it became a haven for thousands of runaway slaves and Galloway organized them for Federal service. He developed into an accomplished political leader and organizer. When Union recruiting agents initially approached Galloway about organizing black recruits for the Union Army, he demanded, as a condition of his cooperation,  “equal pay, provision for black soldiers’ families, schooling for their children, and assurances that the Union would force the Confederacy to treat captured blacks as prisoners of war, not to be executed like traitors.”

In the months after the Civil War, using the organized blacks in New Bern as his political base, Galloway called a freedmen’s convention in Raleigh and he soon commanded statewide influence.  Returning to his home base in Wilmington, Galloway was elected to the state constitutional convention where his powerful oratory inspired blacks and frightened conservative whites.  Later that year he was elected to the state senate.  His sharp sense of humor and debating skills made conservatives avoid a direct argument with him.

If Galloway was so important, why haven’t we heard more about him?

One important reason is his early death in 1870 at age 33.

The main reason, though, might be that, until now, there was no comprehensive biography of Galloway. Now, thanks to Cecelski’s new book, “The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War,” just published by UNC Press, Galloway’s life and accomplishments could become one of North Carolina’s showcase history stories, like the Lost Colony, Blackbeard, and the Wright Brothers.
On UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch this weekend, I ask Cecelski why it took him so long to write “The Fire of Freedom.”
“Galloway’s story is a great mystery solved,” responds Cecelski. “It’s as if Samuel Adams or Paul Revere from the Revolution had been hidden from us.

“Here in North Carolina we had this extraordinary individual, this courageous leader, Union spy, this visionary, who was one of the most important African American leaders in American history and nobody knew about him.

“To pull him out of where his story was hidden eventually took me to almost 60 archives in 14 or 15 different states and four countries.”

The result is worth the 10-year wait.

Don’t miss the chance to learn more about this newly recognized North Carolina hero from David Cecelski on Bookwatch as he talks about his long search for Abraham Galloway.