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:
CHARLESTON – A swift, cool breeze lifts off the Cooper River. It frisks through the crowns of the towering palm trees that line the paved walkway. Small boats wobble in the calm waters on the east side of the Charleston peninsula. A neatly manicured patch of grass provides a tranquil spot for a blanket and a book. In the distance, the steel cables of the Ravenel Bridge stretch in splendor. To the right, flags fly over Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
Soon, this waterfront will be home to the International African American Museum. The $100 million, 40,000-square foot facility will bridge solemn history and modern magnificence. It will offer captivating exhibits, engaging events and a breathtaking view of the Charleston Harbor.
However, this land is more than prime riverfront real estate. It connects deeply to the heritage the museum aims to commemorate. Ship voyage records reveal that nearly half of the enslaved Africans who were shipped to North America disembarked in Charleston. Many slaves took their first steps on American soil on this patch of land, which was once the largest wharf in North America. Historians estimate that more than 90 percent of all African-Americans can trace at least one ancestor to this land.
Eighteen years ago, former Charleston mayor Joe Riley pledged to build an iconic museum that honors that heritage and illuminates the achievements cultivated from that regrettable past. Since then, 37 other museums dedicated to African-American history and culture have been constructed. However, IAAM supporters contend that this land grants it a distinctive, visceral magnetism.
Riley’s vision has attracted support from city, county and state government, local business owners, national organizations and historians. Yet, Riley and IAAM chief executive officer and president Michael Boulware Moore (who is the great-great-great grandson of Civil War Hero and Congressman Robert Smalls) must raise millions more before construction can begin.
Moore’s passion for this project is personal. When he walks this pristine patch of grass, he can hear the shackles rattling as they dragged against the wooden planks. He can see his great-great-great-great grandmother walking across the wharf. “We know that she landed here. That’s sort of my original anchor to Charleston. It’s really deep emotional territory for me,” Moore said. “Every time I go, it hits me.”
“I understand the history that occurred there,” he said. “I understand tens of thousands of people, including my ancestors, disembarked there in chains. I am confronted by the emotions that must have been felt on that space and just by the enormity of what happened.”
The land’s significance
This serene site was once the epicenter of America’s ugliest enterprise. Nearly 250 years ago, this area was merely brackish marsh. Charleston merchant Christopher Gadsden converted it into the largest wharf in North America. It covered 840 feet from the Charleston Harbor to East Bay Street, between what are now Calhoun and Laurens Streets. Initially, Gadsden’s Wharf primarily serviced the rice industry. Eventually, it became a hub of the international slave trade. From 1783 to 1808, approximately 100,000 enslaved African men, women and children were forced into ships and carried on a voyage through darkness across the Atlantic Ocean into the Charleston Harbor.
According to historian and former South Carolina Historical Society archivist Nic Butler, on Feb. 17, 1806, the City Council of Charleston passed an ordinance stipulating that all vessels importing enslaved Africans port in Gadsden’s Wharf. Enslaved Africans were stored like crops in a wharf warehouse. Shackled to despair, hundreds of men, women and children died from fevers or frostbite. They were buried unceremoniously in a nearby mass grave. Those who survived those subhuman conditions were advertised in newspapers, sold and dispersed.
“Some have described it as the enslaved Africans’ Ellis Island,” University of South Carolina history professor Bobby Donaldson said. “If you can imagine people who endured and survived the Middle Passage from West Africa across the Atlantic, Gadsen’s Wharf is where they see land, where they see a dark and unknown future.”
Slaves were taken to different corners of the fledgling country. They toiled in fields to quicken the economy and fostered a lineage of influential American inventors, educators, soldiers, politicians, writers, philosophers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, activists and athletes.