ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Smalls successfully lobbied his old congressional colleagues for a veteran’s

pension and more compensation for the Planter. His last major political role was as

one of six black members of the 1895 state constitutional convention, where he

unsuccessfully opposed efforts to disenfranchise African Americans. In 1889 President

Benjamin Harrison appointed Smalls as collector of customs for the port of Beaufort



Legacy of Robert Smalls

A C-Span Presentation


The Robert Smalls legacy program featured three informative presentations by Bernard Powers, Stephen Wise, and W. Marvin Delaney. Powers covers the period of Robert Smalls’ birth, childhood, as a young man and his employment as lamplighter, waiter and seaman, his marriage to Hannah, and their escape. Wise covers the Civil War period (include the delivery of the Planter to the Union) and Smalls role as pilot and captain of the Planter during the war, as well as his meetings with Union generals (e.g., General Saxton) and Abraham Lincoln at the White House. His advocacy for the South Carolina freedman in New York and Philadelphia as soldier. Wise also covers one of the battles in which Robert Smalls was piloting a gunboat that had to be abandoned under cannon fire. Delaney deals with Smalls’ role in the aftermath of the Civil War, which includes his role as delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention (and his advocacy to establish for the first time public education in South Carolina), his roles as representative and state senator to the South Carolina legislature, and five terms as Beaufort representative in Congress.

There were several things garnered from these presentations I did not find in Dorothy Sterling’s

Captain of the Planter

. The one that stands out most is the utter dependency of the South Carolina planters and their economy on the blacks, free and slave. How can one declare a war against the federal government with such resource dependency? Here again is the arrogant stupidity of the planter class and its succession from and war against the Union. Another item is the decline of the Charleston port to those of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The federal government had the largest navy in the world, over 7,000 ships, and the capacity to manufacture and supply others. How is it possible to sustain military resources when one is dependent on the sale of cotton across the ocean?

I had heard of the Port Royal Experiment, elsewhere, and its attempts with resources from the North (including educated free Negroes)  to educate and reorganize the freedmen into useful and productive lives. It is regrettable indeed that the Civil War military orders that gave land from the former sea island plantations to the freedmen was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson. Of course, the entire Reconstruction became a  Restoration of the leaders of the rebellion, a restoration of slavery in other forms. The civil rights revolution that had been began during the War was crushed by continuing terror and the withdrawal of federal troops, then by legislatures and the Supreme Court, and of course by national complacency. It took another century to return to what had been won by the sacrifices of the slave and colored regiments. Another restoration is underway.

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Smalls, Robert (1839-1915)

Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5, 1839 and worked as a house slave until the age of 12. At that point his owner, John K. McKee, sent him to Charleston to work as a waiter, ship rigger, and sailor, with all earnings going to McKee. This arrangement continued until Smalls was 18 when he negotiated to keep all but $15 of his monthly pay, a deal which allowed Smalls to begin saving money. The savings that he accumulated were later used to purchase his wife and daughter from their owner for a sum of $800. Their son was born a few years later. In 1861 Smalls was hired as a deckhand on the Confederate transport steamer Planter captained by General Roswell Ripley, the commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina. The Planter was assigned the job of delivering armaments to the Confederate forts. On May 13, 1862, the crew of the Planter went ashore for the evening, leaving Smalls to guard the ship and its contents. Smalls loaded the ship with his wife, children and 12 other slaves from the city and sailed it to the area of the harbor where Union ships had formed their blockade. This trip led the ship past five forts, all of which required the correct whistle signal to indicate they were a Confederate ship.  Smalls eventually presented the Planter before Onward, a Union blockade ship and raised the white flag of surrender.  He later turned over all charts, a Confederate naval code book, and armaments, as well as the Planter itself, over to the Union Navy. Smalls’s feat is partly credited with persuading a reluctant President Abraham Lincoln to now consider allowing African Americans into the Union Army.  Smalls went on a speaking tour to describe the episode and to recruit black soldiers for the war effort.  By late 1863 he returned to the war zone to pilot a Union ship.   After the Civil War Smalls entered politics as a Republican.  He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and later to the South Carolina Senate. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives first from South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District and later from South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. Smalls served in Congress between 1868 and 1889.   When his last term ended Smalls moved back to Beaufort, South Carolina to become the United States Collector of Customs.  He also purchased and resided in the house in which he had once been a slave. Robert Smalls died in Beaufort on February 22, 1915 and is buried there with his family.

Source: blackpast

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In 1862, Robert Smalls, a 23-year-old mulatto slave, was employed by Confederates in Charleston, S.C. as pilot of Planter, area commander General Roswell Ripley’s transport steamer. In the early morning hours of May 13 the ship was loaded with armaments for the rebel forts. Contrary to regulations the white captain and crew were ashore for the night. At about 3 a.m. Smalls commandeered the 147-foot vessel from a dock fronting General Ripley’s home and office. Smalls and his crew sailed to a nearby dock, collected family members from another ship and headed toward sea. Aboard Planter during its dash to the Union blockading squadron were Smalls’ wife, children and 12 other slaves.

Smalls donned the captain’s broad-brimmed straw hat and assumed the captain’s typical stance


arms akimbo


in the pilot house. As he passed each rebel fort he gave the correct whistle signal and was allowed to pass. Onward, the nearest Union blockading vessel, was preparing to fire on the approaching ship when Smalls raised a white flag and surrendered.

Union press hailed Smalls as a national hero, calling the ship “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” A Congressional bill signed by President Lincoln awarded prize money to Smalls and his associates. In August 1862 two Union generals sent Smalls and missionary Mansfield French to meet with Secretary of War Stanton and President Lincoln. Their request to recruit 5000 black troops was soon granted. In October, 1862 during a speaking tour of New York to raise support for the Union cause Smalls was presented an engraved gold medal by “the colored citizens of New York” for his heroism, love of liberty and patriotism.—

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Robert Smalls (1839 – 1915) was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5th, 1839, in a slave cabin behind his mother’s master’s house on 511 Prince Street. In 1862 he escaped from Charleston harbor aboard a steamer called the Planter with his family and several friends too. The boat had to pass by five Confederate check-points and then surrender its contents to the northern Naval fleet out in the harbor where it was blockading the important southern port.

His escape succeeded and Robert would meet Abraham Lincoln personally a couple weeks later. Lincoln was quite impressed with a black man (slave) who had learned how to pilot and navigate the coastal waterways around Charleston. Lincoln rewarded Smalls handsomely with bounty-money and a commission into the Union Navy as a captain of a vessel – the Planter! He was the first black Captain of a U.S. Naval vessel.

Three months later Smalls would visit Abraham Lincoln in the White House to plead the opportunity for blacks to fight for the Union. Just days afterwards Lincoln approved the raising of the first black troops in the Blue uniform and Robert Smalls was instrumental in helping to start the 1st South Carolina Infantry of U.S. Colored Troops.

Smalls would go on to pilot the Planter for the Union cause and take pace in several important engagements around Charleston and the Sea Islands. After the Civil War he was elected among a few other blacks as they became the freshman class of blacks to serve as U.S. Congressmen.



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Reconstruction and Smalls’ Political Career


Following the Civil War, Robert Smalls continued to build upon his reputation as a hero and as a leader in the African-American community.  He was one of the founders of the Beaufort County, South Carolina Republican Club.  He served on he Beaufort County School Board and helped to establish the first school built for African-American children.    Smalls became famous as a result of his daring acts during the war and entered politics at the dawn of the Reconstruction era. He became a leader in “the low country” and was elected to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1868 and proposed resolutions to create South Carolina’s public school system and o protect the civil rights of African Americans.  From 1869 to 1889, he served in both houses of the South Carolina Legislature and was elected to five terms in the United States Congress.  His most important legislation during his five terms in Congress was a bill that led to the creation of Parris Island Marine Base in South Carolina The success of African-American leaders in South Carolina politics, such as Smalls, was an affront to the Democrats, called the “Redeemers,” who wanted to return the state to its pre-war status of white supremacy.  After 1876, the “Redeemers” were successful in falsely charging and convicting Smalls of bribery and forcing him from office.  But unlike most of his African-American contemporaries, Smalls fought back, regaining his congressional seat, and continued to fight for African-American representation and participation in state politics.  Despite having to fight an ongoing and often losing, battle with South Carolina Democrats for political power in the state, Smalls was a powerbroker in the Republican Party in his hometown of Beaufort, across the state of South Carolina and in national politics for over forty years.  From 1868 to 1912, he only missed two Republican National Conventions: one by choice in 1880 and the other in 1912 due to family illness.—


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SMALLS, Robert, a Representative from South Carolina; born in Beaufort, S.C., April 5, 1839; moved to Charleston, S.C., in 1851; appointed pilot in the United States Navy and served throughout the Civil War; member of the State constitutional convention in 1868; served in the State house of representatives, 1868-1870; member of the State senate 1870-1874; delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1872 and 1876; elected as a Republican to the Forty-fourth and Forty-fifth Congresses (March 4, 1875-March 3, 1879); unsuccessful candidate for re-election in 1878 to the Forty-sixth Congress; successfully contested the election of George D. Tillman to the Forty-seventh Congress and served from July 19, 1882, to March 3, 1883; unsuccessful candidate for re-election in 1882; elected to the Forty-eighth Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Edmund W. M. Mackey; re-elected to the Forty-ninth Congress and served from March 18, 1884, to March 3, 1887; unsuccessful for re-election in 1886 to the Fiftieth Congress. Smalls was collector of the port of Beaufort, S.C., 1897-1913. He died in Beaufort, S.C., February 22, 1915 and was intermed in the Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery.—bioguide.congress

From Slavery to Public Service, Robert Smalls 1839-1915 by

Okon Edet Uya

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Smalls, Robert (1839–1915)  from The South Carolina Encyclopædia


As Smalls was a knowledgeable pilot, his services were in demand. On December 1, 1863, he was piloting the Planter near Secessionville when severe enemy fire caused the white captain to abandon his post. Smalls brought the vessel out of danger and was awarded with an army contract as captain of the Planter. He was the first black man to command a ship in U.S. service and remained captain of the Planter until it was sold in 1866. By his own count, Smalls was involved in seventeen military engagements during the war.

After the war Smalls settled in his native Beaufort, where he purchased the house of his former master. Smalls’s war-time accomplishments made him a political force in the Sea Islands, with its overwhelmingly black population. In 1867 Smalls was one of the founders of the Republican Party in South Carolina, an organization to which he remained loyal all his life. In 1868 he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention and won election to the state House of Representatives, where he represented Beaufort County until 1870. That same year Beaufort voters sent Smalls to the state Senate, and in 1873 he was promoted to major general in the militia. In the Senate, Smalls was made chairman of the printing committee, an assignment with the potential for graft. In 1877 he was tried and convicted of accepting a bribe and was sentenced to three years, but he was pardoned in an amnesty that also quashed proceedings against Democrats for election irregularities. Even Smalls’s enemies at the time said that the case against him was not strong, and it was likely part of the campaign to remove African Americans from public office.

In 1874 Smalls was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was reelected to the following Congress and served intermittently until 1886. With the return of Democratic rule in South Carolina after 1876, Smalls had increasing difficulty winning reelection. He lost to George D. Tillman in 1878 and 1880 but successfully contested the results of the latter election and took Tillman’s seat in July 1882. Two years later Smalls failed to secure renomination, losing to Edmund W. M. Mackey, who died soon after taking office. Smalls was elected to fill the vacancy and returned to Washington in March 1884, but he lost a bid for another term in 1886. While in Congress, Smalls earned a reputation as an effective speaker. He secured appropriations for harbor improvements at Port Royal and was a vocal opponent of the removal of federal troops from the South.

After returning to South Carolina, Smalls successfully lobbied his old congressional colleagues for a veteran’s pension and more compensation for the Planter. His last major political role was as one of six black members of the 1895 state constitutional convention, where he unsuccessfully opposed efforts to disenfranchise African Americans. In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison appointed Smalls as collector of customs for the port of Beaufort, an office he held, except during President Grover Cleveland’s second term, until June 1913, when he was forced out by South Carolina’s senators. Smalls died on February 22, 1915, at his home in Beaufort. He was buried in Tabernacle Baptist Churchyard.—

Edward A. Miller, Jr., sc150civilwar

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The Robert Smalls Collection is associated with the South Carolina State Museum, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, located in Columbia, SC. “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls” is a part of the museum’s Traveling Exhibits Program and is managed by the museum. Contact information for both the South Carolina State Museum’s Traveling Exhibits Program and The Robert Smalls Collection is listed in the Contact Section of this site.—


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A Thumbnail Sketch of Robert Smalls

April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915


Most Significant Black Participant in the Civil War First Black Captain of a U.S. Vessel S.C. State Legislator Major General in the S.C. Militia Five-term U.S. Congressman U.S. Collector of Customs


Robert Smalls mother, Lydia, descended of slaves from Guinea, was born on Ashdale Plantation on Ladies’ (now Lady’s) Island, S.C. and worked there as a field hand. While still a child she was brought to Beaufort to work as a house slave by her owner, John K. McKee. Smalls was sired by a white man – perhaps their owner, or Moses Goldsmith, a wealthy Jewish merchant from Charleston. At 49 Lydia bore Robert, her only child, in a slave cabin in the back yard of the McKee house. In Smalls’ interview with the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission he stated that he was, relatively speaking, well treated during his time as a house slave.

At 12 Smalls was sent to Charleston to hire himself out for pay. Until he was 18 his owner received all but $1 of Smalls’ pay. He worked in the city as a waiter, lamplighter, stevedore, ship rigger and sailor. At 18, he negotiated his situation with his owner and thereafter retained all but $15 per month of his pay.

On December 24, 1856, Smalls, 17, married Hannah Jones, 32, a slave hotel maid. After their daughter, Elizabeth Lydia, was born Smalls entered a contract with their owner, Samuel Kingman, to buy his wife and child for $800. A son, Robert, Jr., was born in 1861.

Smalls was hired in 1861 as a deckhand on Planter, the transport steamer serving Brigadier General Roswell Ripley, commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina. Smalls later became its pilot. In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, while the white crew was ashore, Smalls, then 23, commandeered Planter, loaded with armaments for the rebel forts. With his wife, children and 12 other slaves aboard he gave the correct whistle signal as he passed each rebel fort. He then sailed toward Onward, the nearest Union blockading ship. As Onward prepared to fire on the approaching rebel ship, it raised the white flag of surrender. As Planter came alongside the Union ship, Smalls, elegantly dressed in a white shirt and dress jacket, raised his hat high in the air and shouted, “Good morning, sir! I have brought you some of the old United States’ guns, sir!” . . .

Taught to read and write by tutors, after the war Smalls became a major general in the South Carolina militia and a state legislator. He participated in drafting the constitution of the state in which he had been a slave. He was the most powerful black man in South Carolina for five decades.

My race needs no special defense,

for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere.

All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life


November 1, 1895

Robert Smalls

below the bust at his grave

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Army commissions vessel named after African-American Civil War hero, S.C. statesman—18 September 2007—by SFC Derrick Witherspoon—Army press release—Years of dedication, determination, love and respect culminated recently in the commissioning of the Army Reserve’s first vessel named after an African-American: U.S. Army Vessel Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls (Logistics Support Vessel-8).  The logistics support vessel, which was christened in April 2004, is the Army’s most recent acquisition and the largest vessel currently in the Army’s floating inventory. It’s operated by the Army Reserve’s Baltimore based 203rd Transportation Detachment, which has the Army’s only crew licensed to operate the vessel.  

The commissioning at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, attended by a number of Smalls’ family members, supporters and crew of the ship, was held to honor Smalls’ heroic actions in the Civil War. Smalls was 23 years old in 1862 when he led a revolt with his wife and a dozen other slaves. They commandeered the confederate vessel Planter and sailed it past armed, unfriendly outposts to the nearest Union blockade vessel, where Smalls surrendered it. The following year, for his courage and daring under fire aboard Planter, Smalls was made the first black captain of a U.S. vessel. He later became a legislator in South Carolina and a militia general. He served five terms in Congress and became the Collector of Customs in Beaufort, S.C., where he lived, ironically, in the house where he had once been a slave.

A key force in convincing the Army to name the vessel for Smalls, Kitt Alexander, of the Robert Smalls Legacy Foundation, worked for more than 11 years to restore his name to national acclaim. 

Further Information Sources on Robert Smalls

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Dorothy Sterling, a significant figure in 20th-century children’s literature for her lucid, well- researched portrayals of historical African Americans written decades before multiculturalism became mainstream, died Dec. 1 at her home in Wellfleet, Mass. She was 95. . . . A self-described accidental historian, Sterling wrote more than 35 books, among the best-known of which is Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman. Published in 1954 and still in print, it was one of the first full-length biographies of a historical black figure written for children.

 Sterling, who was white, developed an interest in African American history after reading the works of such radical historians as Herbert Aptheker and W.E.B. Du Bois. In the 1940s, she was a Communist; later she said socialism was her long-term goal. “I learned about Black history from the Left, and then I pursued it,” she told Mickenberg in the book Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States.

Born Nov. 23, 1913, in New York City, Sterling was a descendant of German Jews who came to the United States in the 1850s. As the daughter of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, she grew up in comfortable circumstances, entered Wellesley College when she was 16 and graduated from Barnard College in 1934. She had wanted to become a botanist but switched to philosophy after a professor told her that the opportunities for a female botanist were extremely limited. Her first job after college was writing reviews for Art News, a weekly magazine. When a new owner replaced all the women on staff with men, she joined the Federal Writers Project, a Depression-era work-relief program.—


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Yearning to Breathe Free

Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families

By Andrew Billingsley and James E. Clyburn

Robert Smalls served with distinction in the Union forces at the helm of the Planter and, after the war, he returned to Beaufort to buy the home of his former masters—a house that remained at the center of the Smalls family for a century. A founder of the South Carolina Republican Party, Smalls was elected to the state house of representatives, the state senate, and five times to the United States Congress. Throughout the trials and triumphs of his military and public service, he was surrounded by growing family of supporters. Billingsley illustrates how this support system, coupled with Smalls’s dogged resilience, empowered him for success. Writing of subsequent generations of the Smalls family, Billingsley delineates the evolving patterns of opportunity, challenge, and change that have been the hallmarks of the African American experience thanks to the selfless investments in freedom and family made by Robert Smalls of South Carolina.

Billingsley crafts a superb genealogical history of Robert Smalls, blending family history with local and state history, while also placing Small’s life and career within the wider framework of the national narrative. . . . Furthermore, he succeeds in impressing upon the reader the fundamental role that family networks played in all areas of Smalls’s life. . . . Without the influence of family, Robert Smalls may not have become the man whose legacy lives on in the history of the African American communities that he once served. Civil War History

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Gullah Statesman

Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915

By Edward A. Miller, Jr.

Gullah Statesman

provides cursory examination of Smalls parentage and family life. While there are disputes regarding who his father was, “there is no doubt that he was white.” Though limited, the reader is introduced to Smalls’s childhood environment, his first marriage to Hannah Jones, and after her death a second marriage to Annie Elizabeth Wigg. His first marriage produced three children: Elizabeth Lydia, Robert Jr., and Sarah Voorhees. A son, William Wigg Small, was the sole offspring of the second marriage. In his later life, Smalls suffered from a variety of ailments, including phlebitis, diabetes, “recurring” malaria, and rheumatism.

The strength of

Gullah Statesman

is the author’s attention to political detail. Miller provides valuable examination of the South Carolina political situation during Radical Reconstruction, Conservative Redemption, and Democratic Supremacy.

His descriptions of Wade Hampton and the Red Shirts movement, George Tillman (brother of Benjamin Tillman) and the Edgefield Plan, and the subsequent statewide disfranchisement of black voters is particularly well done.

By the same token, weaknesses are the cursory treatment of Smalls’s early life as a slave, and the significance of his Gullah background. For example, coverage of Smalls’s life from 1839 to 1862, before his historic runaway from slavery and the Planter incidence, is contained on less than three pages . Likewise, his Gullah background is not introduced as a factor until almost midway into the text.— Wali Rashash Kharif, .h-net

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Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls

By Dorothy Sterling

Dorothy Sterling’s biography of Robert Smalls is Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1958). In most history books, the contributions of Negroes during the Civil War and Reconstructions are ignored. Robert Smalls was one of the heroes who is rarely mentioned. He was a Negro slave who stole a ship from the Confederates, served on it with the Union Army with distinction, and finally served several terms in Congress.

All this was accomplished against the handicaps first of slavery, then of the prejudice of the Union Army, and finally of the Jim Crow laws, which eventually conquered him. Besides its value in contradicting the history book insinuation that the Negro was incapable of political enterprise and that the South was right in imposing Jim Crow laws, Captain of the Planter is an exciting adventure story. Captain Smalls’ escape from slavery and his battle exploits make interesting reading, and the style is fast moving.—Barbara Dodds

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Andrew Johnson: The 17th President, 1865-1869

By Annette Gordon-Reed

Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth man to ascend to the highest office in the land, is generally regarded by historians as among the weakest presidents. Gordon-Reed has no intention of moving Johnson up in rank (“America went from the best to the worst in one presidential term,” she corroborates). So this is no reputation rescue. Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, takes as her task explaining why we should look anew at such a disastrous chief executive. She reasons he is worth looking at, though her reasoning yields a far from sympathetic look. In a short biography, all bases can be covered, but the author is still left to exercise the tone of a personal essay, which this author accomplishes brilliantly. Her personal take on Johnson is that his inability to remake the country after it was torn apart rested on his deplorable view of black Americans.

 In practical terms, his failure derived from his stubborn refusal to compromise with Congress in the abiding post-Lincoln controversy over who was to supervise the Reconstruction, the executive or the legislative branch. A failure, yes, but more than that, a failure at an extremely critical time in American history.



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Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007

By Matthew Wasniewski

Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007— beautifully prepared volume—is a comprehensive history of the more than 120 African Americans who have served in the United States Congress. Written for a general audience, this book contains a profile of each African-American Member, including notables such as Hiram Revels, Joseph Rainey, Oscar De Priest, Adam Clayton Powell, Shirley Chisholm, Gus Hawkins, and Barbara Jordan. Individual profiles are introduced by contextual essays that explain major events in congressional and U.S. history. Part I provides four chronologically organized chapters under the heading “Former Black Members of Congress.” Each chapter provides a lengthy biographical sketch of the members who served during the period addressed, along with a narrative historical account of the era and tables of information about the Congress during that time. Part II provides similar information about current African-American members. There are 10 appendixes providing tabular information of a variety of sorts about the service of Black members, including such things as a summary list, service on committees and in party leadership posts, familial connections, and so forth.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 18 July 2012




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