In honor of American History , I’m about to blow your mind by telling you about a historical figure you never learned about in school. If you have heard of him, then you probably already know who I’m about to say. If you haven’t, you’re not going to believe that nobody ever told you about this guy. I’m talking about Robert Smalls.
Robert Smalls was born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation. As a youth, he was permitted to go to Charleston and work, though he was forced to send most of his wages back to his master. He began taking jobs at the docks in Charleston Harbor, and later on some of the ships that came and went from the port.
Like so many enslaved people, Smalls was haunted by the idea that his family—his wife, Hannah; their four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth; and their infant son, Robert, Jr.—would be sold. And once separated, family members often never saw each other again.
The only way Smalls could ensure that his family would stay together was to escape slavery. This truth had occupied his mind for years as he searched for a plan with some chance of succeeding. But escape was hard enough for a single man; to flee with a young family in tow was nearly impossible: enslaved families often did not live or work together, and an escape party that included children would slow the journey significantly and make discovery much more likely. Traveling with an infant was especially risky; a baby’s cry could alert the slave patrols. And the punishment if caught was severe; owners could legally have runaways whipped, shackled, or sold. Even though the odds were stacked against him, Smalls never stopped looking for his chance.
By the time the Civil War came around, Smalls had become an experienced seaman, so he was assigned to steer a Confederate Navy vessel called the Planter, based out of Charleston. The crew consisted of a few white officers and a number of slaves.
Smalls went to great lengths to show the Confederates that he was trustworthy and content; they never knew that he was hatching an elaborate plan to escape from slavery and deal a blow to the Confederacy, and that he had secretly recruited most of the enslaved crew in his plot. Then one night, when the Planter had docked in Charleston with a shipment of heavy guns aboard, Smalls put his plan into action. When the officers went ashore for the evening and left the ship in the care of the enslaved crew, Smalls led them in hijacking the vessel. They made one stop at another set of docks to pick up the families of Smalls and other crew members, who waited in hiding after having been notified of the scheme in advance.
They weren’t in the clear yet, though, because they still had to sail past a number of Confederate checkpoints on their way to freedom. But Smalls had a plan for that, too: he had been watching the captain and learning the hand signals he used at the checkpoints. Donning the captain’s uniform and trademark straw hat, he guided the Planter past five Confederate harbor forts by impersonating the captain and displaying the correct signals. By the time anyone realized the Planter had gone missing, it was too far gone to catch. He had his crew replace the Confederate flags aboard the ship with white ones, and they were intercepted by a Union vessel who saw the white flags just before they were about to fire. The Union sailors were perplexed by the sight of an all-black crew, until Robert Smalls came forward and shouted, “Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!” He then asked the Union sailors to give him a United States flag to raise on the Planter.
Robert Smalls’ story would be amazing if it ended there, but it doesn’t. After receiving a large sum of prize money for his delivery, he entered service in the Union Navy as a pilot on several vessels, including the repurposed Planter. In this role, he removed mines that he had helped lay as a slave, and participated in a number of sea battles. During one battle, the fighting grew so intense that the captain of the Planter hid in the interior of the ship and ordered the crew to surrender. Fearing that the black crewmen would be enslaved or killed if captured, Smalls refused to surrender; instead, he took command of the ship and navigated the Planter through the Confederate onslaught to safety. Because of his bravery, Smalls was promoted to captain himself, becoming one of the highest ranking and highest paid black officers in the Civil War.
Smalls leveraged his resulting fame into social activism, throwing his support into an initiative to educate former slaves, and becoming literate himself (in most Confederate states, it was illegal to teach a black person to read). While riding a streetcar in Philadelphia, he was ordered to give up his seat to a white passenger; Smalls left the car, rather than suffer the indignity of being forced to ride on the overflow platform. When word got out that a decorated hero of the Civil War had been humiliated thusly, it prompted a backlash that led to the integration of public transportation in Pennsylvania.
But Robert Smalls STILL wasn’t finished. He entered politics, serving in the South Carolina legislature before becoming one of the first black people elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874. And he remained active in public life into the 20th century; in 1913, he prevented the lynching of two black men accused of murder in his town by warning the mayor that the local black population would burn the city to the ground if the mob was not stopped.
And the plantation where Smalls had grown up a slave? He purchased it after the war, and lived there until his death in 1915. The monument at his grave is inscribed with this quote: “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.”
And that is the story of the great American hero Robert Smalls, known by too few people today. I hope this post inspires some folks to learn more about his impressive life.
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