The life of Abraham Galloway, a slave from Smithville who went on to become the first black senator in North Carolina, was celebrated again at a second annual black history program hosted by Sen. Bill Rabon on Sunday.
A resident of Southport, or modern-day Smithville, Rabon noted more than one similarity with his predecessor, whose emergence as a leader during and after the Civil War led to his election as the first black man to the North Carolina Senate.
“The first (Brunswick County) Republican senator in North Carolina, I’m proud to say. There’s only been two: Mr. Galloway and me,” Rabon told an audience of about 25 in a conference room at the Wingate Inn hotel—a last-minute venue change due to locked doors at the adjacent Brunswick Center at Southport.
Noting that Galloway helped to free slaves and recruit thousands of soldiers for the Union cause, Rabon added, “His life was at risk every minute. He was a very brave young man. This is a man who put his life in peril for his fellow African-Americans.”
Sunday’s program was the second that Rabon has hosted since his election in 2010—140 years after Galloway was elected to his second term. After fleeing from Wilmington to Canada, Rabon recounted, Galloway helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad and returned to North Carolina as a spy and recruiter for the Union.
He became a key player in establishing the Republican Party in North Carolina, Rabon said, and after the war, Galloway was among a contingent that met with president Abraham Lincoln. After giving a keynote address to a crowd of about 2,000 former slaves in Beaufort, Galloway was elected to the Senate in 1868 and again in 1870.
As a senator, he helped to rewrite the state constitution, Rabon said. And when he died unexpectedly after his second election, an estimated 6,000 people attended Galloway’s funeral.
“He was probably the most famous person to ever come out of Smithville,” Rabon said.
Among those who attended the program were Southport alderman Nelson Adams, Brunswick County commissioner Scott Phillips, Boiling Spring Lakes commissioner Mike Forte and George Bell, chairman of the Brunswick County Republican Party.
Also in attendance were Ennis Tobler and Alanna Davis, who are descendants of Galloway. Tobler said Galloway was her great-great-great-grandfather, while Davis is her niece. Rabon discussed their ancestor with them after the program concluded.
The featured speaker was Wanda Bryant, a Brunswick County native and a judge for the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Born in Southport, Bryant studied at Duke University and North Carolina Central University before becoming the first African-American—and the first female—assistant district attorney for Brunswick, Bladen and Columbus counties.
Bryant recalled her schooling at West Brunswick High School during the transition from segregation to integration. Brown vs. Board of Education had just been decided, and Bryant said the experience led her to pursue a career practicing law.
“I saw what was going on, and I knew from age nine or ten I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said.
Recalling the racism of that time, Bryant said she remembered seeing crosses burning in a man’s yard, among other instances of hate and racial prejudice. Noting the make-up of the program’s audience, which included almost as many white attendees as black attendees, Bryant said, “The people here were able to get beyond that. And I think this representation here today is indicative of that.”
A trailblazer herself, Bryant said she could not have been without the efforts of predecessors like Galloway, and she thanked Rabon for having the program to highlight him.
“Black history programs like this are about education, about history and culture and learning. Certainly the story of senator Galloway has been enriching to me,” Bryant said.
“I appreciate where I am. It’s thanks to the sweat and tears of many people who came before me,” she said. “It’s based on the shoulders of lots and lots of people.”