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Robert Smalls, the former slave who became the first Black navy commander in US history

In 1862, Robert Smalls commandeered a Confederate ship and earned his freedom before becoming the first Black naval commander in American history.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When it comes to American history, there are a lot of stories. But despite the size of many textbooks, there are lots of stories and people who never make it into the curriculum. 

One of them is Robert Smalls, a former slave who freed himself, his crew and their families by commandeering a Confederate steamship from Charleston Harbor in 1862. He later became the Navy's first Black commanding officer and wrote the legislation that created the country's first free public school system in South Carolina. 

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"Robert Smalls was a Civil War hero, Reconstruction politician, he was the first African American to command a United States naval vessel," Michael Boulware Moore, Smalls' great-great-grandson, said. 

Smalls was known as "Grandpa" to his family, according to Moore, who was the president and CEO of the International African American Museum in Charleston. 

Smalls was enslaved on the CSS Planter, a Confederate transport ship. On May 13, 1862, Smalls got his family, other enslaved crewmembers and their families, and he sailed it to freedom. Miraculously, he sailed past five forts without being caught. 

Smalls' incredible story helped convince Abraham Lincoln to allow Black men into the U.S. Army. Those soldiers helped the Union eventually win the Civil War. 

"After the water, he got a reward for delivering the Planter to the United States," Moore said. 

That reward allowed Moore to buy his family's home in South Carolina. 

"It's really kind of poetic in my view," Moore said. "I mean, he had been enslaved in this house, and he comes back and he buys that. The story is about effectively canceling certain aspects of our history.

"Our history is rich, it is deep, it is dynamic and it deserves to be told."

Contact Richard DeVayne at rdevayne@wcnc.com and follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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