He sat at the conference table next to Frederick Douglass as they tried to convince President Abraham Lincoln that African Americans should be allowed to fight for their own freedom. He served five terms in Congress. He ran a newspaper and helped found a state Republican Party.
But first, he had to win his freedom.
To do that, he conceived a plan that struck a blow against the Confederacy so significant that he was heralded across the nation. Carrying out his mission required bravery, intelligence and precision timing — attributes that many whites at that time thought blacks didn’t possess.
Robert Smalls proved them wrong and changed history in the doing.
Smalls was born in Beaufort, S.C., on April 5, 1839, the son of Lydia Polite, a slave who was a housekeeper in the city home of John McKee, owner of the Ashdale Plantation on Lady’s Island, one of the Sea Islands. Though he never knew the identity of his father, it was widely believed that Smalls was the progeny of McKee’s son, Henry.
“There was a distinctly fatherly relationship between [Henry McKee] and my great-grandfather,” said Helen Boulware Moore of Lakewood Ranch, Fla., who grew up hearing stories about Smalls from her grandmother, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls Bampfield, his daughter.
Growing up at the McKees’ place, Smalls played with both black and white children, ate food cooked in the kitchen where his mother worked and slept in a bed in a small house that was provided for her. Polite had been taken from her family on the island plantation at age 9 to work as a companion to the McKee children in Beaufort.
Because of his connection to Henry McKee, Smalls was allowed “to go places and do things others couldn’t do. That could cause problems with blacks . . . and could be a dangerous thing with whites, as well,” said Michael Allen of the National Park Service’s Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which runs through South Carolina.
The town of Beaufort maintained a 7 p.m. daily curfew for blacks, but on many occasions young Smalls ignored the bell and continued to play with white children. Several times, he was taken into custody. Henry McKee paid a fine to retrieve him, Moore said.
When he was 10, his mother sent him to the plantation to learn the reality of slave life. He came back defiant, not willing to comply, as she had hoped.
“He acted as if he could do what the white children did, and that frightened her,” Moore said. “She wanted to educate him about the whole issue of slavery to save his life.”
Worried that her son would suffer consequences for his bold behavior, Polite asked McKee to rent out Smalls at age 12 to work in nearby Charleston. Each week, he was given $1 of his wages; the rest went to the McKees. He supplemented his income by purchasing cheap candy and tobacco and reselling them.
At age 18, Smalls met Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel worker who had two daughters. He sought permission to marry and live with her in an apartment in Charleston, Moore said.
“He was smart enough to know that at any moment, she and any children they had might be sold, so he asked her enslaver,” who agreed, Moore said.
Smalls became skilled at working on ships, eventually advancing to the position of pilot. In 1861, he was hired to work on a steamer called the Planter, which was used to transport cotton to ships headed to Europe. But once the Civil War started, the Confederates seized it for use as an armed transport vessel.
Smalls knew how to navigate. He knew that the white crew trusted him. He had his eye on freedom, and all he needed was an opportunity.
“They were going to seize the ship,” said Lawrence Guyot, a black-history expert in Washington. “It was dangerous. It was daring. It was unprecedented. And when they accomplished it, it was used to demonstrate that blacks could be brave and strategic in pulling off military maneuvers. Because of what happened on the Planter, Abraham Lincoln decided to let African Americans join the fight in the Civil War.”
Moore, a retired professor, pointed out that “a lot is said about [Smalls’s] patriotism, but it was not simply patriotism that led him to act. His priority was his family.”
Smalls had sought to purchase his wife, his two young children and his wife’s daughters, but the price of $800 was too steep.
In the early hours of May 13, 1862, the Planter’s crew took an unapproved furlough into town, leaving Smalls, 23, and several other black crew members aboard. Wearing a captain’s coat and hat and taking care to hide his black face, Smalls steered the ship toward a rendezvous spot to pick up the men’s families.
“It was really dangerous because they were flying the Confederate flag,” Moore said. “They made a decision that they wouldn’t be taken alive. . . . If they had been caught, they were going to ignite the explosives and die on the ship.’”
Through Charleston Harbor and past several Confederate lookouts, the ship steamed. Smalls signaled at the appropriate points, as he’d seen the captain do.
By dawn, the Planter had reached the federal blockade of the harbor. The crew lowered the Confederate flag and hoisted a white sheet that Hannah had brought from the hotel where she worked, Moore said.
“One of the most heroic and daring adventures since the war commenced was undertaken and successfully accomplished by a party of negroes in Charleston,” trumpeted the June 14, 1862, edition of Harper’s Weekly.
Commodore S.F. DuPont, the commander of the federal fleet barricading Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, wrote to the Department of the Army that Smalls provided information “of the utmost importance” to the Union, such as the location of mines he had helped lay in the harbor while working for the Confederacy, news accounts show.
* * *
This May marks the 150th anniversary of the seizure of the Planter. A commemoration is scheduled for May 12-13 in Charleston.
“Somebody should make a movie about this guy,” said Frank Smith, founding director of the District’s African American Civil War Memorial Museum, which includes an exhibit about Smalls. “If you are looking for a heroic character, it would be hard to invent one with better qualifications than Robert Smalls.”
Smalls became a ship pilot for the Union, serving as a volunteer until he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in Company B of the 33rd Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops. He fought in 17 battles and is credited with recruiting 5,000 blacks. He was later designated a major general in the South Carolina militia.
In April 1865, Smalls returned to Beaufort and the McKee house, which he had purchased in a tax sale, using part of a $1,500 appropriation he received for taking the Planter. Back home, he was reunited with his mother — and one of his former owners.
“Mrs. McKee, after the war was over, came wandering to the house one day,” Moore said. “Because of her dementia, she didn’t realize the house was no longer hers. . . . Given her illness, Robert allowed her to stay.”
Smalls, who had learned to read and write while serving in the military, went into business and then politics. He served in both houses of the South Carolina Legislature and in 1874 was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, beating a white Democrat in a district that was almost 70 percent black. (The 15th Amendment had given African Americans the vote in 1870.)
But his later years were plagued by racism as white-supremacist Democrats stepped up efforts to unseat Reconstruction legislators. He was accused of bribery but later cleared, historical accounts show.
In his personal life, Smalls lost a son in infancy and Hannah in 1883. Seven years later, at the age of 51, he married Annie Wigg, who bore him a second son, William Robert. Annie died a few years later.
Smalls himself died in 1915 at what is now called the the Robert Smalls House, at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is currently for sale for $1.2 million.
Other structures and streets have been named for Smalls. The African American Museum in Philadelphia is currently displaying “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls: A Traveling Exhibition.” The highest honor, though, was the commissioning in 2007 of the Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls, an Army logistics support vessel, in a ceremony at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor attended by several of his descendants. It is the only Army ship named for an African American.
Moore said Smalls’s direct descendants number about 75, the youngest of whom is her 3-month-old granddaughter, Maya Helen Jenkins. Moore’s son, Michael, 49, the chairman of Glory Foods, which sells Southern-style dishes, said his great-great-grandfather’s story is an inspiration for his four young sons, as it was for him. As a child, he said, he would search bookstores for books about Smalls.
“I didn’t think about Robert Smalls as history,” he said. “I thought of him as family.
“The thing that I’m proudest of is his mind-set that he was going to be free, when he had no rational or logical reason to think that he would be. It was all or nothing. I’m proud and intrigued by his moxie and audacity not only to think about freedom, but to conceive and execute a plan to make it happen.”