Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Trailblazers: Book Pays Tribute to African-American Heroes

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Trailblazers: Book Pays Tribute to African-American Heroes

Article excerpt

African-American Firsts

Famous, little-known and unsung

triumphs of blacks in America

By John Potter with Constance Claytor

336 pages, Pinto Press, $14.95 paper

HOW TO OBEY a slavemaster, by Robert Smalls: Place thumb to nose, extend fingers, wiggle vigorously.

Smalls, born a slave in South Carolina, was impressed into service of the Confederate rebellion to work as a wheelman for The Planter, a steamboat that helped supply guns and ammunition to the Confederate military. The ship "employed" several trusted slaves - seven to 12, depending on the historical source. The Confederate officers obviously mistook the contented and smiling faces of the black seamen as contentment.

Bad move.

On the night of May 12, 1862, the Confederate crew members, including the captain, went ashore for something. Whatever it was, they got to do it a lot longer than they expected.

Smalls seized the opportunity, and not without a degree of arrogance. He put on the captain's dress uniform, roused the black seamen, took control of the ship and steered out of Charleston harbor.

He and his crew took the ship to Beaufort harbor, which had been seized by Union forces - not an uncomplicated task considering he had to tip-toe past Fort Sumter. He surrendered the steamboat to the Union forces and became the first proclaimed African-American naval hero of the Civil War. He spent the rest of the war as a pilot with the Union Navy, and at one time, the stories say, became captain of The Planter.

I rarely pick up a non-fiction book that I can't put down. I finally found one. "African-American Firsts" works, works well and works brilliantly.

The book introduces a litany of people who performed some monumentally great tasks, in environs in which slavery, racism, bigotry and malevolent neglect often prevailed.

I don't have room to characterize the number of successes this volume entails. …

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