Black History Month: Robert Smalls


Hi friends,

We hope everyone who has been hit by a snowstorm this week has managed to stay warm! As we’ve seen the news about Code Blue levels of cold throughout every major city in the northeast and midwest, we wanted to start off today with a reminder to be kind to your unhoused neighbors. Know your city’s hotline for the homeless and/or 211 line. Keep cash, soft granola bars, clean socks, etc. on you to give away if you are approached by someone who is sleeping on the streets. 

As promised, it is Friday and we are back in your inbox with another Black historical figure. This week we wanted to focus on someone from our home county about whom, admittedly, we knew very little before this newsletter: Robert Smalls. 


Born April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina on a plantation owned by enslaver Henry McKee, Robert Smalls was the son of Lydia Polite. It’s important that we start by talking about Smalls’ mother because from the time he was young and clearly favored by his enslavers (likely because he was biologically either John or Henry McKee’s child), Polite worried that her son wouldn’t grasp the horrors of enslavement and fought her enslavers to force her son to work in the fields and witness the cruelty of whipping. 

The result of this lesson “led Robert to defiance,” writes Smalls’ great-granddaughter Helen Boulware Moore and historian W. Marvin Dulaney. Smalls “frequently found himself in the Beaufort jail.” If anything, Smalls’ mother’s plan had worked too well, so that “fear[ing] for her son’s safety … she asked McKee to allow Smalls to go to Charleston to be rented out to work.” McKee granted her wish and by the time Smalls turned 19, he had tried his hand at a number of city jobs and was allowed to keep one dollar of his wages a week (McKee took the rest). He secured a job on The Planter, a “first-class, coastwise steamer” known locally for shipping cotton and redwood transport. The money wasn’t enough to sustain a person, however, his education on the water would be foundational: few knew the Charleston harbor better than Robert Smalls. While in Charleston, he married his wife Hannah, with whom he had a daughter, Elizabeth Lydia, and a son Robert Jr. He attempted to save enough money to buy his family’s freedom but the $800 it would take to purchase themselves outright would take years. 


In May 1862, the Union Navy set up a blockade around much of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Within the blockade, Confederates were most invested in defending Charleston, SC, a port city that, to this day, controls so much of the southern economy. At the time Charleston was dense with southern forts (most notably, Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired and, which happened to be our most common field trip location over the years). Brig. Gen. Roswell Ripley was charged with defending the harbor, commanding the very C.S.S. Planter

We’re not great at retelling war stories so the gist is this: the Confederate command departs the ship for the evening to go party in Charleston. They leave the crew’s eight enslaved members behind. One of those members is none other than the experienced maritime expert in the Charleston harbor, Robert Smalls, described by PBS as “a 22-year-old mulatto slave who’s been sailing these waters since he was a teenager: intelligent and resourceful, defiant with compassion, an expert navigator with a family yearning to be free.”

Knowing that failure meant certain death at the hands of enslavers who they’d seen whip others to death, Smalls commands the other enslaved crew members to hoist the Confederate and South Carolina flags, dons the Captain’s straw hat, and picks up his wife and small children on their way out of the harbor. He leads the ship to blow past Fort Sumter, coolly passing as the captain in the dark by mimicking his body language. The Planter continues until it begins to approach the Union blockade, wherein it replaces the rebel and SC flags for a white bedsheet Hannah Smalls had brought on board. 

In The Negro’s Civil War, the dean of Civil War studies James McPherson quotes the following eyewitness account: “Just as No. 3 port gun was being elevated, someone cried out, ‘I see something that looks like a white flag’; and true enough there was something flying on the steamer that would have been white by application of soap and water. As she neared us, we looked in vain for the face of a white man. When they discovered that we would not fire on them, there was a rush of contrabands* out on her deck, some dancing, some singing, whistling, jumping; and others stood looking towards Fort Sumter, and muttering all sorts of maledictions against it, and ‘de heart of de Souf,’ generally. As the steamer came near, and under the stern of the Onward, one of the [Black] men stepped forward, and taking off his hat, shouted, ‘Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!’ ” That man is Robert Smalls, and he and his family and the entire slave crew of the Planter are now free.

Union officers boarded the Planter, astonished by this group of Black folks who had sailed themselves to freedom.  Smalls stood at attention, saluted, and said: “I am delivering this war material including these cannons and I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use.”


While Smalls couldn’t pay his $800 ticket to freedom before this, the Union generals ran his story all the way up to Congress, where they passed a bill to get Smalls $1500 so that he could buy his family’s freedom. Smalls became a hero to the Union, eventually leading the Planter back to fight in seventeen different missions with the Union’s navy and soon landing a $150-per-month position as a captain (classically, the white man whose job he replaced was “so demoralized” he “hid in the coal bunker” – just because the Union hired this Black man did NOT mean they were ready to accept his equal personhood). 

Smalls went on to become a first-generation Black politician, serving in the South Carolina State Assembly and Senate for five nonconsecutive terms, then in the United States House of Representatives from 1874-1886. He fought vehemently for South Carolina to keep voting rights for Black men and to preserve Reconstruction (though, tragically, these were losing battles as the state passed a new constitution in 1895).  At the rise of Jim Crow, Smalls stood firm as a fierce advocate for the political rights of African Americans: “My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

He eventually bought the house of Henry McKee, his former enslaver. If you ever find yourself in Beaufort, SC, you can visit this house, behind which he was born and in which in 1915 he died, at 511 Prince Street.


  • READ/LISTEN/INTERACT: Black in Appalachia – a podcast and a website that highlights the stories of Black people and their contributions and experiences in the Mountain South.
  • LISTEN: Who’s Black Enough for Reparations? – The brilliant people at Code Switch tackle the tricky questions of Black History Month
  • LISTEN (and mark your calendar): NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert’s schedule of artists’ concerts they’re releasing for Black History Month!
  • WATCH: White Noise, the Atlantic’s new documentary about white nationalism (available on Prime or YouTube or with an Atlantic subscription). Just wow. Horrifying but worth an uncomfortable watch. 

Alright y’all, we’ll be back in your inbox early next week. Until then, stay safe and warm!

In Solidarity,

Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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