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Robert Smalls, recognized for his bravery and skill, became one of the first African American pilots in the United States Navy.

Robert Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina. At age twelve, Smalls was sent to Charleston to find work. Sending slaves to the city to “hire themselves out” was common in the nineteenth century. Enslaved people were required to send any money they made home to their enslavers. At the beginning of the Civil War, Smalls worked as a pilot aboard the CSS Planter, a steamboat chartered by the Confederate government. On May 12, 1862, he and other enslaved crew members were detailed to load some heavy guns onto the Planter to be taken to a Confederate fort; Smalls put on the captain’s straw hat and sailed the vessel another pier where his family and friends were waiting. Later, Smalls raised the white flag of surrender and turned over the Planter to the Union fleet. He became a Union war hero.
Recognized for his bravery and skill, Smalls became one of the first African American pilots in the United States Navy. He was wounded on April 7, 1863, while piloting the USS Keokuk. Many of his actions were valuable examples of the integration of the slaves in the Union. After the Civil War, Smalls served in various public offices, including the United States House of Representatives. Throughout his political career, Smalls continued to fight for equality for African Americans. In the US House of Representatives, he fought tirelessly against segregation of the military, railroads, and restaurants. Smalls was a loyal Republican, which, at the time, dominated the Northern States and passed laws that granted protections for African Americans. In contrast, the Democrats, who dominated the South, opposed these measures. Later US parties switched platforms.

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