The African Americans

Search for Truth and Knowledge

By Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.


Part Twenty-Seven: Civil War and Reconstruction

From Slavery to Public Service

African American leaders emerged from the Civil War and Reconstruction Period as a major force in American political history. The pre-war struggle against slavery and years of actual fighting helped to forge African American leaders who had a sense of mission to improve the lot of their people as well as a commitment to use public service to help change the South for the benefit of all. Their personal strengths and abilities helped them to make substantial contributions to the Reconstruction of the nation in spite of the enormous obstacles they faced individually and collectively. For the most part these African American leaders symbolized the heroic story of their people's movement from slavery to public service.

One of the unexpected heroes of this period was a slave named Robert Smalls from Beaufort, South Carolina. He became a heroic figure in the Civil War when he struck a spectacular blow for freedom in May 1862 by piloting a Confederate ship, The Planter, over to the Union fleet which was blockading Charleston harbor. Smalls had been the pilot of The Planter, a cotton steamer converted to transport ship by the confederate Navy. His owner had sold the ship to the Confederate forces and Robert Smalls remained as its pilot because he knew the waterways of the area so well. He trained himself by studying and became an expert seaman and great manager of boats.

Few men knew the South Carolina and Georgia coastline and waterways as well as Smalls. He used these skills to earn extra money to but his wife and child out of slavery even though he was still a slave. As the Civil War progressed he waited for his chance to strike a blow against slavery and win his own freedom and that of his family. On May 13, 1862 he was ready for his spectacular feat. Under the cover of darkness, his courageous plan was carried out with the help of his fellow slave crew members. During the night, Smalls had smuggled his wife and child on board. The plan worked and the news spread throughout the country. It required courage and love of freedom as well as careful planning and brilliant execution.

Smalls continued to fight in the Civil War as a member of the United States Coloured Troops (U.S.C.T.) and served as pilot on another ship, The Crusader as well as The Planter and participated with distinction in more than a dozen engagements during the war. He helped recruuit Blacks into the Union Army as part of the First Carolina Volunteers. His daring exploits gained him national fame.

From a slave born in Beaufort, South Carolina on April 5, 1839, he was destined to become a national African American leader. After the war gy began a distinguished career as political leader and public servant. He was a delegate to the historic South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1866 and served in the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate from 1870 to 1874. During the Constitutional Convention, Smalls introduced a resolution on education calling for a free compulsory state-supported system. This was a very significant legislature act in South Carolina because in the Old South during slavery it was against the law to educate the slave population.

In 1874 Robert Smalls was elected to represent South Carolina in the United States House of Representatives. This ex-slave served in Congress for twelve years from 1875 to 1886 and was a brilliant and eloquent spokesman for his people. His rise from slavery to public service was similar to many other African Americans during this period.

Robert Smalls was representative of the courageous leadership that emerged from the Civil War and Abolition struggle. This African American leadership was evident at all levels of government and politics in the south and made a substantial contribution to the rebuilding of the region and establishment of a foundation under the newly free slave population. In spite of the obstacles placed in the way of African American development this leadership helped to rewrite state n constitutions and local laws as well as establish institutions and organizations designed to uplift the newly freed African Americans as well as the oppressed free Black.

The Civil War and Reconstruction were extraordinary periods of African American political and cultural activities. On the national level there were twenty-two African Americans who served in the United States Senate and House of Representatives during the period from 1870 to 1901. Unfortunately, segregationalists regained control of southern statehouses and legislatures and virtually eliminated Black elected officials. In view of the obstacles faced by African American leaders during the Post-Reconstruction period, there accomplishments were remarkable. They were exceptional and dedicated men and women.

This leadership came from all walks of life. They were ministers, teachers, lawyers, farmers, bricklayers, and barbers. Some were born free, others fought their way to freedom by running away or purchasing themselves and their families. Some of these leaders educated themselves, while others attended outstanding colleges in America and Europe.


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