Tuesday 19 February 2019
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story by Cindy Reid
Most everyone in or around Beaufort eventually drives on Robert Smalls Parkway.  Local children attend Robert Smalls International Academy. Most strolls downtown take you past the bust of Robert Smalls at the Tabernacle Baptist Church.  The name “Robert Smalls” is out there enough to fade into the general background of our lowcountry life, into our collective mental attic where we store half remembered stories and random bits of information. The place for the dusty remnants of history.
But the man Robert Smalls does not belong in that dusty place. Because the man Robert Smalls was a blaze of brilliance and glory, the man Robert Smalls was larger than his own time, the man Robert Smalls broke the trails for the trail breakers and the man Robert Smalls was one hundred percent Beaufort’s own native son.
Consider this. Born in Beaufort in 1839 in a cabin behind 511 Prince Street, to Lydia Polite, a woman enslaved by Henry McKee, Smalls was sent at the age of twelve to Charleston by McKee to hire out as a laborer. (This was a common practice where Smalls could keep a very small portion of his wages and McKee would keep the rest.) Even at a young age Smalls was ambitious and found work on the Charleston waterfront as a longshoreman and then wheelman. This is how he became extremely knowledgeable about Charleston harbor, which becomes very important in a few years.
By the time he was seventeen, Smalls married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid in Charleston. She had two daughters at the time of their marriage and they had their first child, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls in 1858. The couple had a second daughter, Sarah, and third child, Robert, Jr., who died of smallpox as a toddler. The Smalls lived separately from their owners, but had to send the owners most of their income. Smalls wanted to buy his family’s freedom but the price of $800 was far more than he could earn or save. But fate, destiny and a feat of incalculable courage intervened.
The Civil War began in April 1861 at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Shortly afterward, Smalls, who was 22 years old and still enslaved, was assigned to work on a lightly armed Confederate military transport ship, the CSS Planter.
Because he was extremely knowledgeable about the Charleston Harbor, and highly motivated to escape to the north to freedom, the CSS Planter provided Smalls the means to enact a daring escape plan.
On the night of May 12, Smalls and the crew were left alone on board while the officers were on shore.
At three AM, Smalls and the enslaved crewman put their plan to escape to the Union blockade ships into action. Smalls put on the captain’s uniform and guided the ship past the five Confederate harbor forts without incident, as he gave the correct signals at checkpoints. He sailed the CSS Planter past what was then called Southern Wharf, and stopped at another wharf to pick up his wife and children, and the families of other crewmen.
Smalls replaced the ship’s rebel flags with a white bed sheet his wife had brought aboard and headed for the Union Navy fleet. The captain, John Frederick Nickels, of the Union ship the USS Onward, saw the white flag and approached the Planter, and Smalls surrendered the Planter and her cargo to the United States Navy. Smalls’ escape plan had succeeded. He had delivered seventeen black passengers (nine men, five women and three children) from slavery to freedom, and was a hero for delivering the Confederate troop ship to the Union Navy.
As a result of his successful escape, the valuable information regarding the Confederacy’s positions in the south, and the ship he brought to the Union Navy, Smalls was rightly hailed as a hero. He used his fame and status to personally lobby the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to begin enlisting black soldiers. And, when President Lincoln acted on it a few months later, Smalls was said to have recruited five thousand soldiers himself. Smalls went on to be a spokesperson for African Americans and have an illustrious career with the Union Armed Forces.
Back to Beaufort
Smalls returned to Beaufort after the war and was able to  purchase his former master’s house at 511 Prince St. Union tax authorities had seized the property for unpaid taxes and although  Henry McKee sued to try and regain the property,  Smalls won the court case and kept the house. Lydia, his mother, lived in the house for the rest of her life. It is often noted that Smalls was so magnanimous that he allowed his former master’s wife, Jane Bond McKee, to move into her former home prior to her death. The house remained in the Smalls family until 1953. (The house was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1974 for its association with Robert Smalls.)
Reconstruction was happening throughout the south and, in 1866, the federal government passed a Civil Rights Act and two years later, they passed the 14th Amendment, which extended full citizenship to all Americans regardless of race.
In Beaufort, Smalls was investing in the economic development of the lowcountry. Together with Philadelphia businessman Richard Gleves, Smalls opened a store in 1866 to serve the needs of freedmen. In 1870, Smalls and other investors, formed the Enterprise Railroad, an 18-mile horse-drawn railway line that carried cargo and passengers between the Charleston wharves and inland depots. The railroad’s board of directors was entirely African American, except for one white director. Smalls also owned and helped publish a black-owned newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard starting in 1872.
A staunch Republican, Small’s political career began during the war. He joined free black delegates to the 1864 Republican National Convention, the first of seven total conventions he attended as a delegate. After the war, Smalls was a delegate at the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention charged with writing a new state constitution, which guaranteed freedmen the right to vote and their children the promise of free public education.
In 1868, Smalls was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He was very effective, and introduced the Homestead Act and introduced and worked to pass the Civil Rights bill. In 1870, Jonathan Jasper Wright was elected judge of the South Carolina Supreme Court and Smalls was elected to fill his unexpired time in the Senate. He continued in the Senate, winning the 1872 election against W. J. Whipper. In the senate he was considered a very good speaker and debater. He was on the Finance Committee and chairman of the Public Printing Committee.
Robert Smalls served five terms in the U.S. House, representing a South Carolina district described as a “black paradise” because of its abundant political opportunities for freedmen. Smalls endured violent elections and a short jail term to achieve internal improvements for coastal South Carolina and to fight for his black constituents in the face of growing disfranchisement.
In 1875, he opposed the transfer of troops out of the South, fearing the effect of such a move on the safety of blacks in the South. During consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the United States Army, Smalls introduced an amendment that “Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army … no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color.” However, the amendment was not considered by Congress. He was the last Republican elected from the 5th district until 2010 when Wesley Godwin took office. He was the second-longest serving African-American member of Congress (behind his contemporary Joseph Rainey) until the mid-20th century.
In 1890 he was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison as collector of the Port of Beaufort, which he held until 1913. Smalls was active into the twentieth century. He was a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention. Together with five other black politicians, he strongly opposed political efforts that year to disfranchise black citizens. They wrote an article for the New York World to publicize the issues, but the state constitution was ratified. (
Smalls remained in Beaufort for the remainder of his life.  After his wife, Hannah Smalls, died in 1883, Smalls married Annie E. Wigg, a Charleston schoolteacher, who bore him one son, William Robert Smalls.
Smalls died of malaria and diabetes on February 22, 1915 at the age of 75. He died in Beaufort in the same house behind which he had been born a slave and he was buried in his family’s plot in the churchyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort. The monument to Smalls in this churchyard is inscribed with a statement he made to the South Carolina legislature in 1895: “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.”
Robert Smalls’s life and legacy has been honored in various ways. In 2004, the U.S. named a ship for him, the 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. Charleston held commemorative ceremonies in 2012 on the 150th anniversary of Robert Smalls’ escape on the Planter, and there is a statue of Robert Smalls in the new US National Museum of African American History and Culture. There is talk of a movie being made of his fascinating life and recently HGTV featured the Robert Smalls home. Robert Smalls’ legacy is indeed alive.
There is a wealth of information on Robert Smalls life and times online, below are a just a few of the books available.
Be Free or Die by Cate Lineberry, 2017  St. Martin’s Press.
Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story by Janet Halfmann, 2012 Lee & Low Books
Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915 by  Edward A Miller Jr., 2008 University of South Carolina Press