If you know anything about Black History, you’ve heard of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. You’ve heard of Nat Turner and his, soon to be Hollywood depicted, uprising. But, have you heard of Robert Smalls? No, I mean really heard of Robert Smalls?
Born into slavery in 1839, Smalls grew up on a Beaufort, South Carolina plantation at 511 Prince Street. At 19, he met and married Hannah Jones. Though he was a mulatto and treated better than his fellow slaves, Robert’s mother had taken measures to ensure he understood the plight of the Negro in America.
So, at a young age, he spoke up and often against slavery and found himself behind bars on numerous occasions. Thus, the volatility of his freedom and the freedom of his family prompted Smalls to begin a plan that might seem like something ‘Straight Outta Hollywood’.
He is considered a hero and took part in about 17 military assaults.
You see, by the time Smalls turned 22, the country’s racial tension had reached its peak and America’s Civil War began. Now the father of two, Smalls wanted to buy his freedom and that of his family but needed a total of $800 to do so. He had $100, an amount he’d saved from the $1 per week he’d been given of his earnings. The rest had been taken by his master.
Even before working on the steamship, The Planter, which delivered arms to the Confederate ports, Smalls became an excellent sailor. Many thought, whether by stature or looks, that he favored the ship’s captain. This turned out to be a blessing.
On the night of May 13, 1862, Captain Rylea and the two other white officers assigned to the Planter went ashore. Smalls saw an opportunity, and, along with several other slaves aboard the ship, seized the moment to escape. He secured his wife, children and 12 other slaves and brilliantly sailed 7 miles past 3 confederate forts, including Fort Sumter, and into the Union Navy blockade.
This was no small feat as there were specific call signals that needed to be given in order for Smalls to make it past the Confederate Army. Fortunately, Smalls, disguised in Captain Rylea’s straw hat, knew the signals and his disguise aided his efforts.
For surrendering the confederate ship to the union Navy, Smalls was given $1,500. He purchased not only the freedom of his family, but the house of his former slave owners at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. He won an audience with then President Lincoln, recruited nearly 5,000 African American men to fight in the Union Navy, and eventually served as a captain on the Planter.
He is considered a hero and took part in about 17 military assaults. He soon began earning over $150 per month, making him one of the most highly paid black soldiers at that time.
After the war, he became a politician and won the election to represent South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives where he served non-consecutive terms between 1868 and 1889. His efforts to support the black community continued there as he advocated tirelessly for the political rights of African Americans. He died in 1915 at his home at 511 Prince Street. In 2010, he was inducted into South Carolina’s Hall of Fame.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Mr. Robert Smalls. Take a look at the short video below.
BMWK, what do you think of Robert Smalls? How much had you heard about him?
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