Robert Smalls began life as a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina. Born on April 5, 1839, he taught himself to read, and was later briefly allowed to attend school. In his early 20s he was assigned to work as a deckhand on a small cargo ship, and within two years he was the ship's pilot. As the American Civil War raged, he led a plot that stowed his family and several other slaves aboard the vessel, and steered the ship into Union waters. Surrendering to Union authorities, Smalls and the other slaves were freed, the ship was used to transport Union troops and supplies, and Smalls enlisted in the Union Navy, serving as a pilot.
After the war, Smalls was granted a small fortune by Congress for his heroics, and purchased his former owner's home in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he opened a general store. He was elected to the South Carolina House, then the State Senate, and to the US House of Representatives in 1874. Mr. Smalls died on February 23, 1915.
Video source: The African Americans - Many Rivers to Cross, PBS