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A Name You Should Know: Robert Smalls

Frederick Douglass. Sojourner Truth. Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa Parks. These names are in the pantheon of African American heroes. Each year during Black History Month their names are at the fore of many celebrations. Robert Smalls. His name is not well-known, or even known at all, but his contribution to black history is extraordinary and fascinating.

Robert Smalls Research Topic via ProQuest eLibrary

Robert Smalls went from slave to naval captain to U.S. congressman by age 36. The story to his fame began in Charleston, South Carolina 13 months after the attack on Fort Sumter. Smalls was entrusted with piloting the CSS Planter, a Confederate military transport ship. He gained the confidence of the ship’s owners, and in doing so he began to plan an escape to the Union blockade about seven miles in the distance. On the early morning of May 13, 1862, Smalls stole the Planter after its three officers went ashore for the night leaving Smalls and his slave crew alone. Donning the captain’s straw hat and employing the signals he had memorized, Smalls steered the Planter to another wharf where his family and the families of the other crew were waiting. Sailing past five fortified Confederate posts, Smalls’ plan succeeded as the Planter made it to the Union without incident. At just 23 years old, Robert Smalls delivered 16 men and women to freedom and gave critical Confederate defense information to the Union. A reporter hailed it “one of the most daring and heroic adventures” of the Civil War.

Robert Smalls’ story did not end there. Hailed a hero, he was able to lobby the federal government for the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union war effort and reportedly recruited almost 5,000 men himself. He lead the Planter in 17 battles and eventually became her captain. He was the highest-ranking African American officer in the Union Navy. After the war, he became a leader during Reconstruction in the Republican Party. He was elected to the South Carolina legislature and later to the U.S. House of Representatives five times. One of his key initiatives was ensuring free education for all children.

Whether known for their activism or heroism, here are a few other names you should know. Honor them by sharing their stories with others not only during Black History Month but throughout the year.

Bessie Coleman

Hiram Revels

Dorothy Height

Nat Love

Daisy Bates

Guion Bluford

ProQuest’s eLibrary is an excellent resource for students wanting to learn more about African American history and achievement. The new eLibrary platform makes searching easy with its visually appealing Common Assignments and Subject trees. Also, make sure to look at the Editor’s Picks which are focused on Research Topics related to Black History Month. This new feature will change frequently so check back to see what’s new.

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