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Biographies & Memoirs

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Be Free or Die


Facing death rather than enslavement - a story of one man's triumphant choice and ultimate rise to national hero.  It was a mild May morning in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1862, the second year of the Civil War, when a 23-year-old slave named Robert Smalls did the unthinkable and boldly seized a Confederate steamer. With his wife and two young children hidden on board, Smalls and a small crew ran a gauntlet of heavily armed fortifications in Charleston Harbor and delivered the valuable vessel and the massive guns it carried to nearby Union forces.  To be unsuccessful was a death sentence for all. Smalls' courageous and ingenious act freed him and his family from slavery and immediately made him a Union hero while simultaneously challenging much of the country's view of what African-Americans were willing to do to gain their freedom.  After his escape, Smalls served in numerous naval campaigns off Charleston as a civilian boat pilot and eventually became the first Black captain of an Army ship. In a particularly poignant moment Smalls even bought the home that he and his mother had once served in as house slaves.  Read more

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