On April 5, 1839, Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, behind the home of the man that owned his mother. Lydia Polite was the name of Smalls’ mother. She was also born a slave in South Carolina. There is no information on Smalls’ father, just speculation. As a child, Smalls was preferred by the plantation owner John McKee, over the other black children on the plantation. Smalls’ experience was very different from the other black children, so his mother worried that he would not have a true understanding of the horrors of slavery. Lydia arranged for Smalls to begin working in the fields, there he would learn how enslaved people were truly treated. This experience led to him becoming defiant against the plantations owners and crew. He was often defiant and often jailed. He was jailed so much that his mother pleaded for him to be relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, a move that would help to change his life. John McKee agreed to relocate Smalls. By this time he was a teenager who had no idea, he would become an important historical figure. After moving to Charleston he began working several types of jobs but his jobs on the Charleston waterfront, are the jobs that gave him the skills to make history. Smalls’ work abord the ships along the South Carolina coast afforded him intimate knowledge of the coast, steady income, and a chance to meet and marry Hannah Jones. While Smalls worked on the ships, Hannah worked as a maid in hotels. They were able to live together but both had to pay their owners the majority of their salaries.
Robert Smalls approached the owner of his wife and asked if he could buy her freedom. Her owner was willing to sell her to Smalls but the price was $800. Smalls did not have enough money to buy his wife’s freedom, but he did have a plan to set his family free. By this time Smalls was working aboard a confederate ammunitions ship called the Planter. May 13, 1862, was a significant day in the life of the Smalls family. The day appeared to be a normal day, nothing out of the ordinary, but inside the mind of Robert Smalls was a plan to free himself, the crew aboard the Planter, and his family. As the captain of the ship and his men were ashore, the boat was docked with Smalls and the other enslaved black men aboard. Smalls told the men his plan to escape and they bravely followed along. They had to sneak the ship away from the dock and down the Charleston harbor. As they sailed down the harbor they picked up Smalls’ wife and children along the way. The plan was to mimic every action the captain and crew would make so they could pass through the checkpoints without being caught. Every detail was critical in this escape. Smalls even wore the captain’s hat and mimicked the movements of the captain as they passed through the checkpoints. Once the ship was out of range to be attacked by the Confederate checkpoints, it was discovered that Smalls and his men took the ship to sail to freedom. They eventually sailed to a Union Navy port at Ft. Sumter. Before they approached the fort, they changed the confederate flag they used to escape with to a white flag to reduce their chances of being attacked by the union army. They were not fired upon and were allowed to approach Ft. Sumter. When the boat was finally at the dock, Smalls appeared, introduced himself, and announced that he brought the union a confederate ship as a gift.
This moment was very significant because Smalls and his men were smart and brave enough to set themselves free from slavery. Also, Smalls was able to free his family. This escape was also significant because it was used as propaganda to demoralize the will of the confederate soldiers. A black man was able to steal an important battleship of the confederate and free his family during the process. After gaining his freedom, Smalls worked as a ship captain for the union during the civil war and was an avid spokesperson for ending slavery. By this time, Smalls was regarded as a hero for bringing the union a confederate battleship, and he was paid for the appraisal of the battleship. Smalls officially became the captain of the Planter in 1863 after his bravery during one of the many battles he was a part of. The white captain of the Planter was spooked by the gunfire, Smalls took the lead of the ship during the battle. Smalls lead a total of 17 campaigns as the captain of the Planter and the Keokuk. In addition to his military success, Smalls used his voice to advocate for the rights of black people in America. He became one of the black delegates to attend the Republican National Conventions in 1864. His activism would heighten later in 1864 after he was removed from an all-white streetcar while waiting on the Planter to be repaired. Smalls used his celebrity to lead a mass boycott of the public transportation system in Philadelphia. The boycott led to the integration of the Philadelphia streetcars in 1867. After the Civil War, Smalls settled in South Carolina when he purchased the MaKee plantation in Beaufort, he also educated himself. With money from his time with the military and his time as a sea captain, Smalls added entrepreneur to his resume. He opened a convenience store, founded a school, and founded the newspaper the Southern Standard.
Politics was the next move for Robert Smalls. In 1868, he was a delegate at the South Carolina Constitutional Convention. He followed that by being elected to the state house of representatives. From 1870 to 1874 Smalls served as the chair of the printing committee for the state senate. Smalls was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1874 and served on the agricultural committee. He used his position to improve the conditions of the people that voted for him. 80% of the votes went to Smalls in the election, 68% of the Beaufort population are black people. So he helped his people. Smalls was able to receive the resources to improve the Port Royal harbor, an important economic center for the residents of Beaufort. Smalls tried to add an anti-discrimination amendment to the army reorganization bill in 1876, but the amendment was rejected. Smalls became an opponent of Confederate General Matthew Butler and the Red Shirts. A confederate militia, similar to the KKK. During Smalls’ campaign for re-election, his opponent was George D. Tillman, a supporter of the Red Shirts. The Red Shirts used intimidating tactics to scare blacks from voting and used propaganda to spread lies about Smalls. Despite the tactics of Tillman and the Red Shirts, Smalls was re-elected with 52% of the votes. Smalls was charged and convicted of accepting a $5,000 bribe as a chair on the South Carolina state senate. He was sentenced to three years in prison. His conviction was outrageous and lacked substantial evidence. He was released in three days because of an appeal by the supreme court. Smalls was able to face Tillman in Washington D.C. and once again retain his elected position over Tillman. Tillman eventually defeated Smalls in the 1878 elections, using Smalls' conviction as his battle cry. In 1879, Smalls’ case was resolved and he was free of any criminal charges or hassle. Smalls attempted to regain his elected position from Tillman in the 1880 election but was defeated because of issues of trust between South Carolina’s black population and the Republican party.
Smalls was able to sue Tillman for using intimidation to frighten away black voters in the 1880 election. The case was tried and proven that Tillman did use intimidation, and Smalls was once again over the agriculture and militia committees. The House Chamber even tried to prevent Smalls from gaining a victory by not showing up to vote, but Smalls prevailed. Smalls continued to fight for political positions because he understood that black people in South Carolina needed to have the political power to control their lives. Smalls’ wife died in 1883. In 1890, he married a woman named Annie Wigg. Their relationship lasted five years when she died in 1895. Smalls was appointed as the collector at the Beaufort port in 1889, lost the position in 1892 when the Democrats took control of the White House, and regained the position in 1898 with the Republicans regained control of the White House. Robert Smalls died in 1915 at the age of 76 having lived one of the most incredible lives ever. Born into slavery, highly favored by his owners, moved to work in the fields, became fully aware of the brutality of slavery, started a family, stole a confederate battleship, escaped slavery, joined the Union army, became a successful soldier, became a successful politician, and used his celebrity and platform to fight for the rights of his people. Mr. Robert Smalls, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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