A memory. Years ago my friend Steve Kantrowitz was spending a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard. One day he called me up– “I found Galloway! he shouted. Turns out that, while doing his own research on northern black abolitionists and the Civil War, he stumbled onto Abraham Galloway in the financial ledgers of a secretive anti-slavery society in Boston.
Galloway–a slave rebel, militant abolitionist and Union spy from the North Carolina coast– was the subject of my book The Fire of Freedom. At the time that Steve got in touch with me, I was still doing research for the book and I had lost Galloway’s trail in the documentary record. It was as if he had vanished, and I wasn’t sure that I’d ever find him again and finish the book.
Steve found the ledgers at the Boston Athenaeum, one of the oldest libraries in the United States, founded in 1807.
The ledger entry was dated January 1861, three months before the outbreak of the Civil War.
By that time, Galloway had come a long way. Three years earlier, he had escaped from slavery in Wilmington, N.C., and taken refuge in Ontario, Canada.
By the end of 1860, however, according to the ledger, he was back in the United States. He had crossed the border and gone to Boston, where, if captured, he could have been re-enslaved and sent back to North Carolina.
Once in Boston, he boarded a ship for a mysterious voyage to Haiti, the only country in the world where slaves had overthrown their masters.
At that time, Galloway was still only 23 years old: a meteor in the night sky.
Excited by Steve’s discovery, I soon caught a flight to Boston. Another friend, Tim Tyson, flew in from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was teaching at the time. Another scholar, my dear friend Maruja, also flew in from her native Puerto Rico, where she was teaching.
Together we undertook a frenetic week of detective work in archives and libraries in Boston and Cambridge. From historical records in those places, I hoped that we could follow the new lead further and come to understand an important missing chapter in the young ex-slave’s life.
We did not have much to go on. From the ledger, I learned the anti-slavery society’s name, the names of two local abolitionists who aided Galloway in reaching Haiti and the name of the schooner on which he sailed. It wasn’t much, but at least it was something.
The young fugitive slave lived most of his life in the shadows. There was never a time when he rested easy and he often sought not to leave a trail. So as I tried to uncover his life in order to write The Fire of Freedom, I often put great hopes in even the smallest pieces of evidence.
Over the course of a week, my friends and I followed Steve’s new lead to historical manuscript collections at the Houghton Library and to a rare collection of African American newspapers at Lamont Library (both at Harvard), as well as to a treasure trove of historical documents at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Over those few days, an extraordinary, never-before-told story gradually unfolded: the renegade abolitionist John Brown had gone to the gallows on December 2, 1859, but his story was far from over. Along with surviving members of Brown’s inner circle, Galloway was part of a conspiracy to launch a second armed assault on slavery, this time executed from a base in Haiti and aimed not at Harper’s Ferry, but at the Deep South.
Galloway, we discovered, was in the thick of a dangerous world of Spanish spies, West Indian abolitionists and militant revolutionaries hell-bent on leading the United States into a war to liberate his loved ones and gain his people’s freedom.
* * *