Thalian Hall Wilmington, NC
Out of a population of 9,552 in the 1860 federal census, 3,777 of those living in Wilmington were slaves. Another 573 were listed as "free persons of color," but African Americans were not allowed to vote in antebellum North Carolina, nor could they hold office.
And how did those slaves live?
Thalian Hall/City Hall, Wilmington, North Carolina
"Well, we can guess they worked long hours," said Gareth Evans, executive director of the Bellamy Mansion Museum at Fifth Avenue and Market Street. "There was lots of scrubbing, lots of emptying chamber pots, lots of toting water."
A century and a half after the Civil War, traces of the legacy of slavery can still be found in Wilmington.
Thalian Hall Wilmington, NC
Many of those traces can be found in some of its most impressive public buildings, such as the Thalian Hall/City Hall complex or the Bellamy Mansion itself.
Both of these structures were largely built by slave and free black labor by skilled craftsmen such as William B. Gould, a plasterer, or Abraham H. Galloway, a bricklayer who pocketed his own wages and paid his owner, Brunswick County planter Thomas Hankins, $15 per month.
Thalian Hall Wilmington, NC
"I remember the bricklayers, they was all colored," a former Wilmington slave recalled in a Depression-era interview for the federal Works Progress Administration and later compiled in George P. Rawick's "American Slave."
"The man that plastered the City Hall was named George Price, he plastered it inside. The men that plastered the City Hall outside, and put those columns up in front, their names was Robert Finey and William Finey, they both was colored. …
Thalian Hall/City Hall
"Yes'm they was slaves, mos' all the fine work 'round Wilmington was done by slaves. They called 'em artisans. None of 'em could read, but give them any plans, and they could follow them to the las' line."
Over at the Bellamy Mansion, now cased in glass, is palpable proof of the contributions. Some years ago, repairs revealed a piece of plaster with the florid signature of William B. Gould, the man who did the work.
Born in 1837, the son of an English father and a slave mother, Gould was a slave belonging to Nicholas Nixon, who owned a large plantation in what is now Porters Neck.
Bellamy Mansion Museum at Fifth Avenue and Market Street
Like many of the Wilmington slaves, however, Gould enjoyed considerably more liberty than slaves who were working on the rice plantations along the Cape Fear River or one of the "turpentine orchards" of the pine forests nearby.
Slaves in the building trades could, in effect, rent themselves out, usually in contracts that ran from the first of the year to the last. They gave their owners a share of what contractors paid them and kept the rest.
In some cases, if a slave was hardworking and lucky enough, he could save enough money to buy his own freedom and that of his family – if his owner would take the payment.
Rear View of the Bellamy Mansion, Wilmington, North Carolina
Still, life was not idyllic, even for these workmen. Slaves were closely scrutinized by the local law. Each night, a bell in the old Market House at the foot of Market Street tolled, signaling the curfew for the slaves.
In 1857, the 20-year-old bricklayer Abraham H. Galloway smuggled himself aboard a ship and sailed to freedom in the North. He could not make his payments to his master, Hankins, and apparently feared he would be shipped off to tougher work or sold to a meaner master, according to his biographer, historian David Cecelski.
Born in 1837 in Smithville (now Southport), Galloway, like Gould, had been the son of a white man, a Brunswick planter's son, and a slave woman. Wilmington would hear from him again.
In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Gould would escape as well. On the night of Sept. 21, he and seven other slaves slipped down to the riverfront, stole a small boat and began to row down the Cape Fear.
On a voyage that took a couple of days, hiding in the swamps by day, the eight slaves made their way down the Cape Fear River and out to sea, where they reached the Navy vessel USS Cambridge, which was part of the blockade of Wilmington.
Gould promptly enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving for the rest of the war. He kept a journal of his wartime service, later published as "Diary of a Contraband" in 2002 by Stanford University Press. ("Contraband" was a Civil War term for an escaped slave.)
Urban Slave Quarters At The Bellamy Mansion In Wilmington, North Carolina
North Carolina forbade the teaching of slaves to read and write, but the law was widely ignored. Gould probably learned his letters in Sunday school at St. John's Episcopal Church, which he attended, said his great-grandson, William B. Gould IV, who edited the journals.
Not all Wilmington slaves, of course, were builders. At the Bellamy Mansion, Dr. John D. Bellamy and his family kept nine slaves: seven women, who worked as cooks and maids, and two men, Guy the butler and Tony the coachman who doubled as a handyman, according to Evans.
The women lived in a two-story brick dormitory building behind the house, apparently joined from time to time by the slaves of guests. (The slave quarters had a total of 10 privies, Evans noted.) Guy and Tony lived above the Bellamy stable, which is now the museum's visitors' center.
Slave Quarters Interior
The Spartan slave quarters are currently being restored with funding from a federal grant. Evans hopes the project can be completed by the end of the year.
Gould was not the only slave to leave a written account. James Johnson, born in 1847 in Smithville (Southport), was sold to a succession of Brunswick county boat builders and planters. He worked as a hostler (i.e., a stable groom), a field hand and as a coachman.
In a 15-page narrative, he recalled going out on Sundays "into the fields (to) scare the birds from the Indian corn and rice."
Life was tougher on the plantations. Johnson vividly recalled how his master tied him to a tree trunk and "flogged me until the blood streamed down my back, and then ordered some of the other Negroes to wash me in salt and water in order to cure my lacerated back as soon as possible."
Plantation Slave Quarters
As the Civil War broke out, Johnson noted that food grew more scarce. In the summer of 1862, like Gould, Johnson and some of his friends stole a boat and made their way to the Union blockader USS Stars and Stripes.
He made his way to England, working as a sailor and a boxer until he underwent a religious conversion. Later he traveled as an evangelist, leaving a written account of his life that Cecelski and Alex Meekins discovered in archives in Oldham, England.
After the war, Gould moved to Massachusetts, where he prospered as a building contractor and became active in the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans' organization. He died in 1923, having seen all six of his sons serve in the armed forces in the Spanish-American War or World War I.
Bellamy Mansion Negro House c. 1859
Galloway's life was perhaps the most amazing. During the Civil War, he returned to North Carolina. Based in Union-occupied New Bern, he served as a Union spy and as a sometime recruiter of ex-slaves for the Union Army. After the war, he returned to Wilmington, where he became active in the Republican Party. He represented New Hanover County in the state's 1868 constitutional convention, then served in the state Senate until his death in 1870. Cecelski is currently writing a full-length biography of Galloway for the University of North Carolina Press, due for publication in 2012. (source: Star News, Ben Steelman, 31 Aug. 2011)