By: Leon Kwasi Kuntuo-Asare
Robert Smalls was born into the harsh and inhuman system of slavery on april 5, 1839, owned by Henry Mckee. He grew up in Beaufort, South Carolina and was heavily influenced by his mother, Lydia Polite’s Gullah culture and heritage.
As an adolescent, Smalls’ master had him hired out as a laborer, hotel worker and lamplighter for the streets of Charleston.
Smalls would go on to perform work as a dockworker, sailmaker, and wheelman, (pretty much a pilot ) but slaves were not allowed to be given the honored title of pilot.
On December 24, 1856, while still a teenager, Robert smalls married Hannah Jones, when he was 17, she was 23 and was a slave working as a maid at a hotel. She already had two kids and would go on to have two more kids with Smalls, unfortunately for the couple, Robert Jr., the second of their children together would die at age 2.
In the fall of 1861, Smalls was assigned to steer the css planter. A confederate military transport, that was under the command of Brigadier General Roswell S. Ripley. Their duties were to deliver troops and supplies, and to survey waterways and lay mines.
On May 12, 1862, the Planter was docked at a wharf below General Ripley’s headquarters. When the white officers left to have a night on the town, smalls and the rest of the slave crew escape to find their families, in the case of Smalls and to make their planned escape to union blockade ships.
Smalls would steer the planter safely through five Confederate harbor forts, as he gave the correct signals at the correct check points. Smalls would then head for the Union Navy Fleet, flying a white bed sheet as a surrender flag. He would surrender her cargo to the United States Navy, after escaping from slavery with his black crew.
Smalls at only 23, soon became known in the North as a hero. Newspapers reported on his exploits and the Congress passed a bill awarding Smalls and his crew prize money for the planter ship. Two weeks later Smalls would meet President Lincoln, where he would tell the president his amazing life story.
The courage of Smalls was an example that blacks were capable of fighting in the military. In August 1862, Smalls visited Washington D.C to convince President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to allow black men to fight for the Union Army. He was successful and Stanton signed an order permitting up to 5,000 African-Americans to enlist in the Union Forces at Port Royal, Smalls would go on to serve as a pilot for the Union Navy.
In 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel of the United States. On December 1, the Planter (now part of the Union Navy) was caught in heavy confederate fire, the ship’s Commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender to enemy forces, but Smalls refused to give up, fearing that escape slaves would be killed. Smalls would take control of the ship from Nickerson and pilot the planter out of Confederate gun range. For displaying such valor, smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter’s Captain.
Soon after the war, Smalls returned to his hometown of Beaufort, where he would buy the home of his former master, his mother would live with him the remainder of his life.
In 1866, Smalls went into business with Richard Howell Gleaves, a businessman from Philadelphia, they opened a store to serve the needs of former slaves.
In 1868, Smalls served as a delegate in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention, where he took part in an effort to make compulsory school free for all children.
During the reconstruction era, Smalls served as the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 to 1870, later he would serve in the South Carolina State Senate between 1871 and 1874, Smalls would also bravely in the South Carolina militia until 1877, where he served a brief stint as its commander with the rank of Major General.
Smalls would be elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served two terms from 1875 to 1879 and from 1882 to 1883 he represented South Carolina’s 5th Congressional district in the house.
After the compromise of 1877, the U.S. government withdrew its remaining forces from South Carolina and other southern states. White conservatives who called themselves the “Redeemers” resorted to violent tactics and election fraud to regain control of the state legislature, as an effort to reduce the power of the African-American community, Smalls was arrested and convicted on bribery, he was pardoned as part of an agreement by which charges would be dropped for Democrats accused of election fraud.
After his pardon, Smalls would get back into politics, he became a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention, with five other African-American politicians, he strongly opposed white Democrat efforts that year to disenfranchise black citizens.
Smalls would go on to serve as the U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, serving from 1889 to 1911, after being appointed by the Republican National administration.
Smalls would die of malaria and diabetes in 1915, he was 75.
The legacy of Robert Smalls :
Fort Robert Smalls was named in his honor; it was built by free blacks in 1863 on McGuire’s Hill on the South Side of Pittsburgh during the American Civil War. It survived until the 1940s.
The Robert Smalls House in Beaufort, SC, has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
A monument and statue are dedicated to his memory where he is interred at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort.
During World War II, Camp Robert Smalls was established as a sub-facility of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center to train black sailors (the Navy was segregated in those years).
The desk that Smalls used as Collector of Customs is on display at the Verdier House museum in Beaufort.
In 2004, the U.S. named a ship for Robert Smalls. It is USAV Major General Robert Smalls (LSV-8), a Kuroda class logistics support vessel operated by the U.S. Army. It is the first Army ship named after an African American.
An exhibit at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum is dedicated to Robert Smalls’ contribution to the US Army.
Charleston held commemorative ceremonies in 2012 on the 150th anniversary of Robert Smalls’ escape on the Planter, with special programs on May 12 and 13.
The Oregon Civil War Sesquicentennial presented a special 150th Anniversary program on May 16, 2012 at the Kenton Public Library branch in Portland, honoring Robert Smalls’ epic voyage to freedom and his contributions to society.
Robert Smalls Parkway is a five-mile section of South Carolina Highway 170 that crosses Port Royal Island and leads into Beaufort.
Notes from Wikipedia.
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