All That’s Black: Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls, politician, pilot and captain:


My race needs no special defence, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of anyone. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” Politician, pilot and captain: Robert Smalls was an African-American born into slavery in Beaufort, S.C. His mother, Lydia was a house slave and it is believed his father was Henry McKee-slave holder and plantation owner. Smalls enjoyed more freedom than most slaves, raised inside of the McKee House and even disobeying a curfew for Blacks and spending time with White companions.

However, his mother, wanting him to be aware of his reality, often asked for him to work in the field and even had him witness whippings). At 12, the McKee family moved to Charleston, where Lydia found her son work on the waterfront, first as a rigger but eventually a sailor.

Still enslaved, Smalls worked as a sea captain and pilot for the South during the American Civil War but used his position (and the relative trust of the white crew members aboard the Planter) to plot an escape for himself and the other slaves aboard the ship.  On May 13, 1862, Smalls waited until the white crew members left the ship to sleep on land-as was their custom. Early in the morning, he donned the captain’s uniform and a straw hat he was prone to wearing and sailed quietly out of Charleston’s Harbor-stopping by another ship to pick up his wife and children and the families of the other slaves-who’d stowed aboard earlier in the day. Because Smalls regularly piloted the Planter, he knew all of the hail signs and codes and managed to sail undetected into the Union held harbour.

The ship’s treasure of guns, ammunition, and important documents proved to be a wealth of information, telling the Union commanders of shipping routes, mine locations and the times that Confederate ships docked and departed. His feat successfully helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army. He was awarded 1,500 dollars and given a captaincy, going on speaking tours and recruiting African Americans to serve for the Union.

His success even allowed him to purchase his former owners’ home, where his mother lived out the rest of her days. As a politician (serving in the House of Representatives from 1874-1878), Smalls authored state legislation that gave South Carolina the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States. Smalls died of natural causes in his Beaufort home on February 23, 1915, at age 75.

By Aprille’ Morris & Emily Burke

Edited By Keshav Kant

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