“Darkness still blanketed the city of Charleston in the early hours of May 13, 1862, as a light breeze carried the briny scent of marshes across its quiet harbor.
“As thin wisps of smoke rose from the vessel’s smokestack high above the pilothouse, a 23-year-old enslaved man named Robert Smalls stood on the deck. In the next few hours, he and his young family would either find freedom from slavery or face certain death. Their future, he knew, now depended largely on his courage and the strength of his plan.
“At about 4:15 a.m., the Planter finally neared the formidable Fort Sumter, whose massive walls towered ominously about 50 feet above the water. Those on board the Planter were terrified. The only one not outwardly affected by fear was Smalls. ‘When we drew near the fort every man but Robert Smalls felt his knees giving way and the women began crying and praying again,’ Gourdine said. (Alfred Gouirdine one of the six other enslaved crew members.)
“As the Planter approached the fort, Smalls…pulled the whistle cord, offering ‘two long blows and a short one.’ It was the Confederate signal required to pass, which Smalls knew from earlier trips as a member of the Planter’s crew.
“With steam and smoke belching from her stacks and her paddle wheels churning through the dark water, the steamer headed straight toward the closest of the Union ships, while her crew rushed to take down the Confederate and South Carolina flags and hoist a white bedsheet to signal surrender.
“…(when) those on board the Planter realized they had actually made it to a Union ship. Some of the men began jumping, dancing, and shouting in an impromptu celebration, while others turned toward Fort Sumter and cursed it. All 16 were free from slavery for the first time in their lives.”
That story of how Robert Smalls stole a Confederate transport, freed himself and six other enslaved crew members and their families appeared in Smithsonian Magazine on June 13, 2017 (The Thrilling Tale of How Robert Smalls Seized a Confederate Ship and Sailed it to Freedom.)
When describing the accomplishments of Robert Smalls, it’s hard to know where to begin. There’s this daring escape and his later record as a naval war hero for the Union. He is seen as one of the key influences that convinced Lincoln to enlist Black men in the Union army. He led one of the first boycotts of segregated public transportation, an action that led to a city law in Philadelphia that integrated streetcars. He purchased the house of the man who had owned him as a slave. He created a school for black children in his home town of Beaufort, S.C., and started a newspaper in Beaufort. He also served a nearly unprecedented, for 19th century Black congressmen, five terms in the House of Representatives.
Smalls was born in Beaufort in 1839 to a slave mother, Lydia Polite. His father is unknown. Smalls was owned by John McKee and worked in his house. McKee later moved to Charleston and hired Smalls out on the waterfront. He progressively held jobs as a lamplighter, stevedore foreman, sail maker, rigger and sailor. He married Hannah Jones in 1856. She was an enslaved hotel maid in Charleston. They had two children, a daughter named Elizabeth and a son, Robert Jr. It was out of fear that his family members would be sold and separated that he hatched his escape plant. Hannah, Elizabeth and Robert Jr. were on the Planter when Smalls sailed it to freedom. He had become an expert in navigating the waters around Charleston and along the coast. With the start of the civil war he was conscripted into the Confederate Army and stationed on the Planter, a ship that was being used to transport munitions. After Smalls escape he continued to work on the Planter which was repurposed as a Union troop transport.
Smalls’ war record was one of the advantages he brought into his political career. Another was his ability to speak Gullah, a dialect common in the South Carolina lowlands. Like many other Black legislators at the time, he benefited from a redistricting effort that clumped Black voters into a single district, in this case Smalls hometown of Beaufort was part of a southeast coastal district with a 68 percent Black constituency. In his first bid for a house seat, in 1874, he won with 80 percent of the vote.
Smalls’ legislative record is marked by support of numerous civil rights issues as well as working to provide benefits for his coastal Caroline constituency. Most of the 19th century Black congressmen saw their Congressional representation limited to a single term, usually because of the voter suppression efforts of white supremacists. Smalls faced threatened violence, redistricting, voter intimidation and various legal maneuvers intended to unseat him, something that makes his five-term longevity all the more remarkable.
1876 saw the Democrats regain control of South Carolina, but Smalls still won reelection, defeating Democrat George Tillman with 52 percent of the vote. Having been unable to upend Smalls at the polls, the Democratic state government brought charges against him of accepting a $5,000 bribe while he had been a state senator. He was sentenced to three years, but released after three days while the conviction was appealed. He ended up being pardoned by Democratic Governor William Simpson in 1879 as part of a deal that involved dropping election law violations by Democrats.
The conviction was an electoral liability and in 1878, with voter intimidation now widespread in his district, he lost to Tillman. He lost again to Tillman in 1880 but contested the election, claiming his voters had been frightened away at the polls. The issue came before the full House, and with Democrats boycotting the vote, those present voted 141-1 to seat Smalls. In 1882, he failed to gain the Republican nomination, but the man who did, Edmund Mackey, died shortly after winning the general election and Smalls won a special election to regain his seat. He would be reelected one more time, in 1884, easily outpolling Democrat William Elliot.
After Smalls left the House of Representative in 1887, there would not be another Black congressman from South Carolina until 2011.
Andrew Billingsly, author of Yearning to Breathe Free: Andrew Smalls of South Carolina and His Families, said of the former congressman, “Robert Smalls is one of the greatest heroes of his generation. He left a legacy of service and he was the undisputed political, economic and social leader of Beaufort County for half a century after the war.” (The Times and Democrat, Orangeburg, S.C., March 16, 1997).
Smalls was 75 when he died from malaria and diabetes in 1915. On the monument in the churchyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort where he is buried, there is an inscription of one of his quotes from the floor of the South Carolina legislature: “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
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