Mr. Smalls’ big break

As a mother, I’d like to believe I have had some influence on the quality of my child’s character. I’d love to think that my values and choices set a good example; that my own blind spots haven’t put him into therapy; that I put inspiring opportunities in my son’s path that helped shape the moral, empathic, good humored person he’s turning out to be.

Robert Smalls plaque

Historical plaque, Charleston

I don’t pretend to believe that our story is in any way comparable to that of Robert Smalls and his mother—our life situations could hardly be more opposite. But I was forcefully reminded of my maternal aspirations as I learned about them. Of course motherly influence wasn’t exactly the story outlined on the plaque that caught my attention while walking along the Battery in Charleston, South Carolina.

Smalls is known for a heroic act to free his family from slavery and his lifelong fight for racial equality. But what’s most intriguing to me about his story is how a slave child grows up to envision a different future from that imposed on him. What gives him the confidence, defiance, or desperation to believe he can succeed?

Robert Smalls' House, Beaufort, SC

McKee House, Beaufort, SC

Robert Smalls was born in a cabin behind the house of his master in 1839 Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, Lydia Polite, who was nine when she was taken from her family on the coastal sea islands, grew up working in the fields, but now served in the house of the master, John McKee. It is not known who Robert’s father was, but the McKee family favored him, dressing him well, taking him around town; and he played with both white and black children.

But Lydia worried that his relatively easy life was not exposing him to the true horror of the slavery he was born into. So when he was ten, she arranged for him to live with her family on the plantation, spending long days picking cotton, rice and tobacco, wearing the tattered clothing other slaves wore, and watching rule-breaking slaves being tied up and whipped.

Returning to Beaufort, Robert’s behavior became more defiant, frequently landing him in jail. Lydia, fearing for his safety, asked McKee to send Robert to Charleston to be rented out to work. He worked in a hotel, as a lamplighter, and on the docks and wharves of Charleston. Smalls was allowed to keep one dollar of his wages a week, the rest going to his owner. By age 19 he was working on the water, becoming intimately familiar with Charleston harbor. He met his wife, Hannah, a slave of the Kingman family, and with their owners’ permission, they got an apartment, having two children. Knowing the impermanence of the arrangement, Smalls asked his wife’s owner if he could buy his family. The price they finally offered was steep: $800. Smalls had saved $100.

Steamer Planter

The Steamship Planter

By May, 1862, Smalls was the “wheelman” on the C.S.S. Planter, acting as the ship’s pilot, but without that title because only whites could rank. A first-class coastwise steamer built for the cotton trade, the Planter was now in the service of the Confederacy.

With the Union Navy blockading the coasts, the Confederates were dug in around Charleston, defending its harbor with a number of island forts, including Fort Sumter. After weeks on a coastal supply mission, the Planter returned to Charleston harbor. Due to go out again the following morning, it carried a howitzer and other guns, and about 200 rounds of ammunition. The ship’s three white officers decided to spend the night on shore—for which they could be court martialed—leaving the eight trusted slave crewmen on board.

What the officers didn’t know is that Robert Smalls had been planning for this opportunity. He couldn’t afford to buy his family, but he knew he could win their freedom by sea, so he told his wife to be ready. Smalls sailed the Planter out that night, stopping at a nearby wharf where his family and those of other crewmen were hiding.

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls

Smalls piloted the ship past the five Confederate forts guarding the harbor, providing the correct signals that allowed them by. Passing Fort Sumter at about 4:30 am, he steamed directly out to the Federal ships, flying a white sheet in surrender. The USS Onward was about to fire when a sailor spotted the white flag just as dawn was breaking. Smalls turned over the Planter and her cargo, as well as the Confederate’s secret signals code book and a map of the torpedoes laid in Charleston harbor, to the Union Navy.

I like to credit Robert’s mother Lydia for loving him enough to teach him some crucial life lessons, and influencing the path that helped build his courageous character. But where does character really come from? I suppose you have to give some credit to the “owners” who—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps intending kindness—provided opportunities that helped him learn his potential. Did they not see his intelligence; or did they just not fear it? Where did he get the creativity to disrespect the immoral rules of his society? And the native chutzpa he obviously had to envision a future different from that he was trapped in?

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was recognized and rewarded by the Union for his heroism. Given an opportunity to meet with President Lincoln, he used it to lobby for allowing black men to serve in the army. He served as a pilot for the Union Navy, and in December 1863, he became the first black captain of a US vessel. While piloting the USS Keokuk in a failed attack on Fort Sumter, its commander wanted to surrender. But Smalls, knowing the black crewmen would be captured and killed, took control and steered the ship to safety (while the captain hid in a coal bunker). For his bravery, Smalls was named the USS Planter’s captain. He later returned with the ship to Charleston harbor, for the ceremonial raising of the American flag over Fort Sumter in April 1865.

After the war Robert Smalls bought his former owner’s house in Beaufort. He fought for the rights of black people for the rest of his life.

In 1866, the Republicans who controlled Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s vetoes and passed a Civil Rights Act; in 1868, they passed the 14th Amendment, granting citizenship to all Americans regardless of race. During the Reconstruction era, Smalls served in the South Carolina Senate and House, where he wrote legislation to establish the first free, compulsory, public schools in the country. In 1874, he was elected to the US House of Representatives, serving five terms. When that body debated a bill restructuring the army, he proposed an amendment that “Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army… no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color.” The amendment was never considered.

After the Compromise of 1877, the US government withdrew the army from the Southern states. South Carolina rolled back Reconstruction in a constitution that stripped blacks of their voting rights. Through election fraud and violence, white Democrats regained control in the South Carolina legislature, and gerrymandered district boundaries for Beaufort and other heavily black coastal areas, to create districts with high white majorities. Smalls was the last Republican to be elected from his district until 2010, and was the longest serving African-American in Congress until Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. late in the 20th century.

Robert Smalls gravestone

Robert Smalls’ gravestone

His mother Lydia lived with him in Beaufort for the rest of her life; she died in 1878. He also allowed his elderly former master’s wife, Jane Bond McKee, to move back into the family home before she died. Robert Smalls died in 1915. He and his wife Hannah are buried at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort. He made his own breaks in life, but I think his mother must have helped.



Note: after writing this piece, I was pretty excited to come across a blog (by Emily L Hauser) with a comment by Robert Smalls’ great, great grandson, Michael B. Moore.  I thought I’d include it here. 

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