Originally published at Blog-City October 26, 2005
Black Hall Of Fame: Robert Smalls – Humanitarian, Hero, Congressman, & 1st Inductee
& 1st Inductee
Robert Smalls, 1st Inductee into Black Hall of Fame (BHOF)
Robert Smalls, escaped slave, Civil War hero, captain of U.S. “Planter” vessel, U.S. congressman from South Carolina & humanitarianRobert Smalls (1839-1915) was a black American statesman who was born a slave and made a daring escape at the beginning of the Civil War. After the war he served five terms in Congress as the representative from South Carolina.Robert Smalls was born a slave to Robert and Lydia Smalls in Beaufort, S.C., on April 5, 1839. His master took Smalls in 1851 to Charleston, S.C., where he worked as a hotel waiter, hack driver, and rigger. He was forced into the Confederate Navy at the outbreak of the war, and made to serve as wheelman (quartermaster) aboard the armed frigate “Planter.” He became the de facto pilot of a Confederate transport steamer, the Planter. Smalls never accepted his enslaved condition and was determined to free himself. He taught himself to read and write, mastered the tricky currents and channels of Charleston Harbor, and bided his time. Sooner or later his chance would come; he would be free. He had to be free.The Civil War brought his chance. It had just gotten dark on the evening of May 12, 1862. General Roswell Ripley and the other white confederate officers of the Steamer Planter had just gone ashore to attend a party in Charleston, leaving the black crew alone.
Quickly, the black crew’s families left their hiding places on other vessels and came aboard the Planter.
On the morning of May 13, 1862, long before the sun was up and while the ship’s white officers still slept in Charleston, Smalls smuggled his wife and three children aboard the Planter and took command, impersonating the captain. With his crew of 12 slaves (7 men and 5 women, including his wife Lydia) and his 3 children, Smalls sailed the steamer out of Charleston harbor, through St. Helena Sound and by the inland passage down the Beaufort River.
In this capacity as quartermaster, he had become knowledgeable of all navigation channels in Charleston harbor as well as all the gun and troop positions of the Confederate armies guarding the harbor. Smalls and the other slaves quietly got the ship underway and headed for the mouth of the harbor and the blockading Union fleet. Soon they would have to pass under the guns of Fort Sumter. Smalls hoisted the Confederate flag and with great daring sailed the Planter past the other Confederate ships, out to sea, and into history. To increase their chances of success, Smalls donned the clothing of Planter’s confederate captain. The trick apparently worked because they were not fired upon until after they were out of range.
Once beyond the range of the Confederate guns, he hoisted a flag of truce and delivered the Planter to the Union commanding officer of the naval squadron blockading the city. Smalls explained that he intended the Planter as a contribution by black Americans to the cause of freedom.
Planter eventually approached the U.S.S. Onward, of the blockading fleet, to surrender. She brought with her a 24-pound howitzer, a 32-pound pivot gun, a 7-inch rifle and 4 smooth-bore cannons. Planter had served as headquarters ship for General Ripley and was a valuable ship because she could carry as many as one thousand troops and her shallow draft gave her freedom throughout much of the coastal waters. Robert Smalls had been born on the Sea Islands and knew the waters from Beaufort, South Carolina to Florida. Together they were important prizes for the Union.
The ship was received as contraband, and Smalls and his black crew were welcomed as heroes. Later, President Lincoln received Smalls in Washington and rewarded him and his crew for their valor. He was given official command of the Planter and made a captain in the U.S. Navy in 1863; in this position he served throughout the war.
Generally, any enemy ships taken in this manner are treated as prizes for the men who performed the courageous act. Commander Du Pont submitted the claims for these men to Washington despite his misgivings that they would be honored. Since these men had been slaves and the Dred Scott Decision said they were merely contraband, it took a special act of Congress to award the ship as a prize, and even so it was valued at $9168, or 1/3 it’s true value.
Robert Smalls was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, Company B, 33rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops. He was then detailed as Pilot to the Planter. Later Smalls was assigned to the ironclad Keokuk for an attack into Charleston Harbor. Things soon went awry and the order of battle was abandoned, each ship fighting for itself. Keokuk eventually suffered over 90 shell hits and was soon sent to the bottom.
Smalls survived and was transferred back to Planter. In late November of 1863, Planter saw action that prompted its white captain to surrender. Smalls knew he could expect extremely poor treatment from the Confederates and instead urged the gunners to carry on. The captain took cover in the coal bin for the duration of the battle while the crew fought on under Smalls’ leadership. This action prompted the dismissal of the captain of record and the promotion of Robert Smalls to the position of Captain.
During the remainder of the Civil War, Smalls worked with the Port Royal Experiment as a recruiter of African American troops from the Sea Islands to serve in the Union Army.
After the war, Smalls returned to South Carolina to enter politics, despite his limited education. During Reconstruction (1865-1877), he served in the Carolina Senate, from 1868 to 1870, and from 1871 to 1874 in the state senate. In 1875 he was elected to the U.S. Congress for the first of five terms (1875-1879, 1881-1887). His first term in the 44th Congress was historic in that seven of the congressmen and one of the senators were African-American. These congressmen were from many different professions such as barber, minister, tailor, and Smalls – US Navy captain.
In 1877, however, he was convicted of having taken a $5,000 bribe while in the state senate; although sentenced to three years in prison, the governor pardoned him.
At the time of his final congressional term, which convened in 1885, only two African Americans remained in Congress. They were Smalls and James E. O’Hara of North Carolina. His record as a congressman was progressive. He fought for equal travel accommodations for black Americans and for the civil and legal protection of children of mixed parentage. He was one of the six black members of the South Carolina constitutional convention of 1895. In 1895 he delivered a moving speech before the South Carolina constitutional convention in a gallant but futile attempt to prevent the virtual disenfranchisement of Blacks.
A political moderate, Smalls spent his last years in Beaufort, where he served as duty collector for the port of Beaufort (1889-93, 1897-1913) after leaving Congress. He retained his interest in the military and was a major general in the South Carolina militia. He died on Feb. 23, 1915, and is buried in his native Beaufort. Robert Smalls’ house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A fine biography of Smalls is Okon Edet Uya, From Slavery to Public Service: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915 (1971). Dorothy Sterling, Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls (1958), written for young people, has an extensive bibliography. A good account of Smalls is in William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1968). Francis B. Simkins and Robert H. Woody, South Carolina during Reconstruction (1932), discusses his political career.
Miller, Edward A., Gullah statesman: Robert Smalls from slavery to Congress, 1839-1915, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
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Robert Smalls gained promotion to the rank of Major General in the South Carolina Militia. He eventually became a congressman after the Civil War. He lived in Beaufort, SC. Smalls tried for years to collect a pension from the navy, but was unsuccessful. There is a memorial bust of him in front of the African Baptist Church in Beaufort. He is buried at the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
1839: This was an exciting year in the annals of African-American history. Joseph Cinquez, a slave freedom fighter, seized the slave ship Amistad and tried to steer it back to Africa and freedom. The capture of the Amistad was the most celebrated of American slave mutinies. 1839 also saw the birth of the Liberty Party. This was the first anti-slavery party in the United States. It was founded in Warsaw, New York, by abolitionists Samuel Ringgold Ward and the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet. Perhaps the year of his birth was prophetic, for later Robert Smalls was at the forefront of anti-slavery causes and political reform. The fame of Robert Smalls is linked to his capture of the Confederate cotton steamer, the Planter.
If today we can have an Armstrong Williams, I guess the 1860s could have had their own Judas Goats – at least a few. After all the American Revolution had Paul Revere and Benedict Arnold. But “Gone With The Wind” (book by Margaret Mitchell, movie produced by David O. Selznick) would have us believe that most of the Negro slaves, who fought in the Civil War, were on the Confederate side, protecting Miss Scarlett.
Robert Smalls proves otherwise.
Yvonne De Carlo and Clark Gable in “Band of Angels”
Jeanne Crain and William Lundigan in “Pinky”
“Imitation of Life” with Claudette Colbert and
“Imitation of Life” with Lana Turner
In all these Hollywood versions of life, we are fed a steady diet of basic lie, detrimental to society in general and Black people in particular.
De Carlo and Crain played Black women, so White looking that even Central Casting couldn’t tell the difference. Both were loved and revered by White men, who knew they were Black, but Gable and Lundigan didn’t care. They wanted to marry the mulattos anyway. Absolute rubbish, right?
Oh yes, in true life we have Sally Hemmings. And a White man did lust after her, if nothing else; but I don’t remember any former President of the United States offering her his hand in marriage. Black people were so proud of Sally Hemmings.
Turner and Colbert each had a Black maid, the color of Mammy, Hattie McDaniel, in GWTW. After all, it was the same story. Each produced a female child (Susan Kohner in Turner’s flick), so fair that again Central Casting couldn’t tell the difference between Caucasian and Mulatto.
But in these two fantasies, the lie is what they tell Black people of “high yellow” persuasion: “If you are fair enough to pass and fool us White folks, don’t! That would be betraying your race, your mother and yourself.” – BULL CRAP! If some darkie that light (Carol Channing & J. Edgar Hoover come to mind), can have a successful career and life by using the current U. S. Military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for homosexuals, for Black people instead, then I say, “Why not?”
Do any of you think Carol Channing would have been Carol Channing if the truth had been known? She’s Black.
Do any of you think that there would be a Federal Building in D. C. named after Hoover or that J. Edgar would have been J. Edgar, if the truth had been known? He was Black.
Remember, in America there is no such thing as partially pregnant or partially Black. It’s all or nothing! If they know, that is.
The damage to Black folks is this: I have a cousin, older than I, who has informed me at least 4 times in the past year and a half, that she has native American Indian ancestry. She has never informed me that she has Black ancestry in so many words. She is so proud of the fact, as if that somehow makes her better than the rest of the Black folks on the other side of the family that didn’t have Indian ancestry. Well, I have news for that cousin; she is still a “nigger” (That’s with a small “n”) in most parts of the U. S.
Do Black males still marry as light as they can? Today, that often means White. Why? So they can show off the “old lady” with pride, and so their children will have “straight” hair and pale skin – the lighter, the better.
Black women are no better. Yeah, I know how trifling most young Black men are. But Black women, who can, will marry a White man in a minute to produce the same type “straight-haired”, “pale-skinned” children, the lighter the better, as their Black male counterparts. As Tina Turner sang, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
Now mind you, I am not trying to dump on light-skinned, straight-haired mulattos. I think of them as Black too, even if you or they don’t. But the slave mentality is still alive and well in Black America. The house slaves, the White Massa’s chillun’, were considered superior to the field hands, or as they were known to the fair-skinned house slaves, “tar babies”.
So Whitey has not only created a problem for himself: like a rubber band, stretched too tight for too long, now that Black males can, they jump to marry Whitey’s females. Whitey has created an unending problem for the descendants of slavery, who have never experienced actual slavery themselves: self-hatred and skin-color prejudice. Listen up, colored people; the lightness of your skin is only important to Artra executives. Everybody else is wearing blinders and listening for that unmistakable sound of Ebonics.
Now that you color-conscious Negroes have been duly chastised, we can get on with the tribute to Robert Smalls. Mr. Smalls insisted that I speak to you sternly on the “skin color” matter first.
Make certain that any children of color, you know, know the name “Robert Smalls” and what he accomplished. If Blacks want Blacks in history books, we have to write the books ourselves. I had never heard of Robert Smalls until 2004; and I attended Howard University.
Robert Smalls, BHOF Honoree and 1st Inductee.
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