Billingsley crafts a superb genealogical history of Robert Smalls, blending family history with local and state history, while also placing Small's life and career within the wider framework of the national narrative. . . . Furthermore, he succeeds in impressing upon the reader the fundamental role that family networks played in all areas of Smalls's life. . . . Without the influence of family, Robert Smalls may not have become the man whose legacy lives on in the history of the African American communities that he once served.
Civil War History
Born a slave, Robert Smalls died a free man whose heroic actions and example inspired the freedom struggles of generations of oppressed blacks. His life story is at once inspirational and instructive. Smalls's capture of a confederate warship and the liberation of slaves combined General Grant's tactical brilliance with Harriet Tubman's legendary courage. Billingsley's thoughtful, pathbreaking book shows how Smalls's accomplishments were rooted in traditional black beliefs and practices which endure today. This is a must-read for students of the black experience and the promise of American democracy.
Walter R. Allen, Allan Murray Cartter Professor of Sociology, University of California-Los Angeles
Andrew Billingsley admirably combines an impressive command of the sociology of black families with a keen understanding of southern religious practices and Reconstruction politics in this original and richly documented biography of the audacious Civil War hero and visionary South Carolina statesman, Robert Smalls. Yearning to Breathe Free places Smalls's heroic achievements, abiding commitment to his families, and his championship of universal public education against the backdrop of the changing fortunes of the larger black community.
Darlene Clark Hine, Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies, Northwestern University, and author of Black Victory: The Rise and Fall of the White Primary in Texas
From his sensational escape with the Planter in 1862, through his combat service in the Civil War, to his bold and implacable political leadership in the face of threatening opposition in Reconstruction South Carolina, Robert Smalls was an American hero in the truest sense of the word. Billingsley's new biography goes beyond describing the dramatic events of Smalls' public life; it explains the remarkable character behind them. It is, therefore, an important contribution to the history of South Carolina and the history of the United States.
Lawrence S. Rowland, professor emeritus of history, University of South Carolina Beaufort
Billingsley not only recounts the story of the man known as the 'first hero of the Civil War' but also provides a new framework for considering the role of family and community in the development of young men. His insights on these issues invite the consideration of contemporary policymakers as they address the social challenges of our day.
Kurt L. Schmoke, dean of the Howard University School of Law