By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, Smalls was a well-known and wealthy man. He arranged to buy the plantation in Beaufort where he was born, and he and his wife raised three children there. The United States continued to struggle with important and complicated issues during this time. For example, federal lawmakers had to decide whether to punish the Confederate leaders, what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much assistance to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves. This difficult period in American history was called Reconstruction, and it lasted until 1877.
Now that they were free, black people wanted equal rights and opportunities in Southern society. But many white people in the South wanted things to stay the way they were before the war. In many cases, the struggle between the two groups turned violent. As a result, the U.S. Congress took control of the Reconstruction process in 1866 and sent federal troops into the Southern states to enforce their policies.
Under Congressional Reconstruction, black Americans were allowed to vote and to participate in government in the South for the first time. Smalls decided to put his reputation as a war hero to use by running for public office. In order to rejoin the Union, the Southern states were required to hold conventions to rewrite their state constitutions. Smalls was elected as a delegate to South Carolina's constitutional convention. He helped create a new state constitution that outlawed slavery, provided free public education to all children, and guaranteed black people the right to vote and hold office.
In November 1868, Smalls was elected to the South Carolina state legislature representing Beaufort and the surrounding area along the coast. He was one of 82 black men elected to the state legislature, out of a total of 155 represen tatives. South Carolina was the only state in which black members made up a majority of the state legislature during Reconstruction. In 1874, Smalls was elected to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Congress. He lost his seat in the elections of 1878, but then regained it in 1880. He failed to hold his seat again in 1882, but was reelected in 1884. Although Smalls lost the election in 1886, he reclaimed his seat anyway because his opponent died before taking office. He completed his final term in public office in 1888.
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