HISTORY: Meet Robert Smalls, Boat Captain for Union Navy who Escaped Slavery and Became 1st African-American Elected to U.S. Congress

U.S. Naval Captain and U.S. Congress Member Robert Smalls (photo via Library of Congress)

by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)

On this Veteran’s Day, Good Black News is choosing to honor former Union Navy boat captain and oft-hidden historical figure Robert Smalls of South Carolina.

Robert Smalls was the first black man elected to U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. He was born into slavery in 1839 in Beaufort, S.C., and started his remarkable, implausible journey to national prominence by daring to escape slavery during the Civil War with his family. 

Smalls, like many other enslaved peoples, was made to work for the Confederate forces during the Civil War. Menial labor such as grave digging, cooking, digging trenches, etc. were the most common jobs, but some enslaved peoples were used in skilled labor positions, such as Smalls, who could navigate the waters in and around Charleston, so was used to guide transport ships for the Confederate Navy.

On May 13, 1862, Smalls convinced several other enslaved people to help him commandeer a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor. Smalls sailed from Confederate-controlled waters to the U.S. blockade.

By doing so, not only did he gain freedom for himself, several enslaved peoples and members of his family, his example of cunning and bravery helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to accept black soldiers into the U.S. Army and Navy. Check out PBS video about this event below:

Smalls became Captain of the same boat for the Union Navy and helped free enslaved peoples as he fought and outwitted the Confederate Navy several more times during the duration of the War. After the South surrendered, Smalls returned to Beaufort, S.C. and purchased his master’s house, which was seized by the Union in 1863. His master sued to get it back, but lost in court to Smalls.

Smalls learned to read and write during this time, and after going into business to service the needs of freedmen, Smalls was elected to the State House of South Carolina. While there, Smalls authored state legislation to provide South Carolina with the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States. He also founded the Republican Party of South Carolina.

In 1874, Smalls was elected the first black member of U.S. Congress. In backlash to his election, gerrymandering began in a big way to start tilting seats back to white men.

Conservative Southern Bourbon Democrats, who called themselves the Redeemers, resorted to violence and election fraud to regain control of the South Carolina state legislature. As part of wide-ranging white efforts to reduce African-American political power, Smalls was charged and convicted of taking a bribe five years prior in connection with the awarding of a printing contract. 

Smalls was pardoned as part of an agreement by which charges were also dropped against Democrats accused of election fraud. But the scandal took a political toll, and Smalls was defeated by Democrat George D. Tillman in the senate election in 1878, and again, narrowly, in 1880. Smalls successfully contested the 1880 result and regained the seat in 1882.

In 1884 he was elected to fill a seat in a different district. He was nominated for Senate but defeated by Wade Hampton in 1886. Smalls died of malaria and diabetes in 1915 at the age of 75. He was buried in his family’s plot in the churchyard of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in downtown Beaufort. According to curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smalls’ family went on to be very successful, and there is a Robert Smalls lecture at the University of South Carolina every year.

The monument to Smalls in the churchyard is inscribed with a statement he made to the South Carolina legislature in 1895:

My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.

To learn more about Robert Smalls, check out Be Free or Die by Cate Lineberry or Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls, From Slavery to Congress 1839 to 1915 by Edward A. Miller, Jr. (paid links)

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