During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers such as Robert Smalls who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn more about important figures.
Born: April 5, 1839, Beaufort, South Carolina
Died: Feb. 3, 1915
Best known for: Taking possession of a Confederate ship and delivering its 16 enslaved passengers to freedom.
Robert Smalls was born into slavery, but during the Civil War, he piloted a ship out of the Charleston Harbor, surrendering it to the Union navy, thus freeing the 16 enslaved men, women and children on board. Later, he became a captain and U.S. representative.
Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839. His mother, Lydia Polite, was enslaved by Henry McKee, who may have also been Smalls’ father. At the age of 12, Polite made an arrangement with McKee to send Smalls to work in Charleston as a laborer, where he was only able to keep $1 a week of his earnings, sending the rest back to McKee.
In Charleston, Smalls met Hannah Jones, who was enslaved as a hotel maid. With both owners’ permissions, they married, moved in together and had two children. Smalls attempted to buy his family’s freedom, but Hannah’s master demanded $800 — a price Smalls could not afford. He promised his wife they’d one day escape.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Smalls was assigned to work on the Planter, a Confederate military cargo ship. He sailed it around the harbor, getting to know the other Black crew members and gaining the trust of the ship’s white officers. In 1862, Smalls devised a plan to lead himself, his family and his crew members to freedom. One night, when the officers were ashore sleeping, he and the crew boarded the ship, sailed it out of the harbor and surrendered it to the Union Navy. After his escape, he lent his knowledge of Charleston’s defenses to the Union Navy, providing essential knowledge that later helped them to capture Coles Island.
In the North, Smalls was a celebrated figure. Congress awarded him half of the value of the Planter for his valiant wartime efforts. He also traveled to Washington and met with Abraham Lincoln alongside Frederick Douglass. Smalls’ valiance on the Planter persuaded Lincoln to allow Black men to serve in the Union Army, which led to 5,000 former slaves being drafted. He became the pilot of the Union ship, the USS Crusader and the captain of the Planter. He was the first Black man to be promoted to captain, though he wasn’t a commissioned officer. However, in a 1897 act by Congress, Smalls was given a pension equal to that of a Navy captain.
After the war, Smalls returned to Beaufort and found McKee on the brink of bankruptcy. With the money Smalls made from his award, he bought the home from his former owners. Smalls was later elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He subsequently became a member of the South Carolina Senate and then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874, serving for the 5th Congressional District and 7th Congressional District throughout his career. He was later offered a U.S. Army colonel’s commission during the Spanish American War and a position as U.S. Minister to Liberia but turned both down.
A member of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, he was buried at the church in 1915 after dying from diabetes and malaria. A bronze bust of him was erected in his honor near his grave and still stands there today.