In 1862, 13 years before he became one of the first African-Americans elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Robert Smalls was a slave crew member aboard the Confederate ship Planter, docked in the Charleston, S.C., harbor. It was after midnight on a spring evening when the ship's captain and white crew were ashore that Smalls seized the chance to weigh anchor and maneuver the vessel past three Confederate forts and out into the Atlantic, where he waved a white flag and surrendered to a Union blockade ship, declaring, "I thought the Planter might be of some use to Uncle Abe."
Smalls' voice is but one of hundreds resounding in Perseverance, the first of three volumes in this rich historical survey of the black experience. The saga begins with the West African empire of Songhai in the 15th century and concludes at the peak of the modem civil rights movement.
While Perseverance is populated with such indomitable figures as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Colin Powell, the book's strength lies in its resurrection of less celebrated historical events and characters: spirited pioneer women, black cowboys and cavalrymen, heroes, craftsmen and visionaries. The creative mix of profiles and essays, brightly illustrated with maps, drawings and rare photographs, is enough to enlighten even the hippest black culture buff.
Volume 2 in the series, Leadership, will be available this month; Creative Fire will be published later this year. Taken as a whole, Voices of Triumph is itself a triumph, a fascinating and welcome new key to understanding our nation's history. (Time-Life Education, $29.95)