7 Generations – The Promise Land

Mary C. Galley, my 2nd Great-grandma was born one day in January 1865 in Wilmington, North Carolina. She was only months old when the 13th amendment abolished slavery. She wouldn’t have known if she was a black girl born enslaved unless her namesake mother Mary Pearce told her point blank, “You were born free.” Like herself at least as far back as the 1850 United States Federal Census could portray back then my 8-year-old 3rd Great-grandma.

2nd Great-grandma Mary grew up under her carpenter father Joshua Galley who owned $200 dollars in real estate and housekeeper Mom who couldn’t write at 28 years old when the family was enumerated in 1870.[1] She was the middle child between her four brothers: Joshua Galley Jr., James Galley, David Galley and Charles Galley. At 5 years old Mary might have seen the fed soldiers around the port city governing over the reconstruction south to enforce the 13th, 14th and 15th constitutional amendments passed between 1868–1870.

Wilmington was somewhere between a safe haven and impeding oppression for black folks. Freedmen became a powerful voting bloc. Institutions like Wilston Academy taught freed slaves and anyone seeking an education. Black folks even separated from missionary churches to build and run their own congregations like St. Marks. Finally, building black-owned business like the Wilmington Daily Record.[2]

By May 15th, 1886 2nd Great-grandma Mary was married to Armstrong Johnson, a colored man who was the son of then deceased Sidney Johnson and his still living mother Nancey Davis.[3] All four of them had called Wilmington home.

I grew up hearing about the Wright brothers soaring the North Carolina sky in the 1900s. But I didn’t hear enough about what happened on the ground. Daniel Kopf writes in The Great Migration: The African American Exodus from the South, “from 1890 to 1910, at the very least, an average of 119 African Americans were lynched yearly.” White southern folks feared their way of life was crumbling forever.

This was the climate that had many like 2nd Great-Grandma Mary set her eyes on the North. A chance to escape persecution, search out jobs and evade Jim Crow Laws. But by the 1900s, she was 35 years old and a widowed single mother raising her daughter Grace in Wilmington.[4] I don’t know what happened to her husband. I have found a death certificate of a black man named Armstrong Johnson who died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 30th, 1914. But there is no sufficient information to claim him my 2nd Great-granddad since his decedent placed his birthplace in Virginia not Wilmington or anywhere in North Carolina.

1910 Washington D.C. was everything 1900 Wilmington was not. While the woman suffrage of 1913 was taken place, 2nd Great-Grandma Mary lived through the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898. Waves of black folks left Wilmington and everything they had behind. I wonder if she ever saw or heard from her brothers once she moved to D.C.

Life in Washington D.C. had 2nd Great-grandma Mary at 42 years old the head of household earning a wage in the laundress industry.[5] She was able to read, write and rented a home. World War I was going on but I imagine she was aiming to keep her world intact. Her dying on October 14th, 1947 at 82 years old was in her daughter’s family registry. Maybe she died in Washington D.C.

But by then my Great-Grandma Grace was separated from her husband Eugene Hunnicutt with two children: Grandaunt Lucile and Granddad Charles in Brooklyn, NY. I don’t know if Great-Grandma Mary ever left Washington D.C. to meet her grandchildren.

Washington D.C. had its own fair share of problems but those were nothing like the days left behind. If 2nd Great-Grandma Mary only wishes had been to get her and her daughter Grace a decent life away from harm, then by leaving the south she found her promise land.


7 Generations – is a blog series that digs into my family tree to consider the impact of circumstances and decisions through the generations.

Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) received his MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He’s eyeing agents to help publish his coming of age story, Christine’s Dream – A Memoir of Love, Loss & Life. He is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment and has been published in TSR: The South Hampton Review and is forthcoming in The Tishman Review. When not writing he runs for the thrill of crossing the finish line. Find more of his work at www.rashaunjallen.com.


[1] Year: 1870; Census Place: Wilmington, New Hanover, North Carolina; Roll: M593_1151; Page: 382A; Image: 471; Family History Library Film: 552650

[2] Margaret M. Mulrooney’s Wilmington, North Carolina’s African American Heritage paints a vivid picture of the black community.

[3]  North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011

[4]   Year: 1900; Census Place: Wilmington Ward 1, New Hanover, North Carolina; Roll:1208; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 0066; FHL microfilm: 1241208

[5] Year: 1910; Census Place: Precinct 6, Washington, District of Columbia; Roll: T624_152; Page: 2B; Enumeration District: 0112; FHL microfilm: 1374165

Rashaunjallen.com is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.”

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