Robert Smalls (1839-1915) is remembered, if at all, for his daring escape from slavery and sometimes for his subsequent election to Congress. But he should be remembered as a champion of entrepreneurship, economic opportunity, and equality for all people.
Robert Smalls was born a slave on John McKee’s plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5, 1839. His mother, Lydia Polite, was a house slave and his father was likely John’s son.
When Smalls turned 12, owner Henry McKee sent him to Charleston to be hired out. McKee let Smalls keep $1 of his $15 monthly wages to buy candy and tobacco – which Smalls sold to dock workers at a profit. When Smalls turned 17, he married a slave, Hannah Jones. When he realized he could never afford to purchase their freedom, he devised another plan.
Smalls got a job in the Charleston port and, when the Civil War broke out, his ship became a Confederate naval ship, the CSS Planter. Smalls memorized the actions and habits of Captain C. J. Relyea. On May 13, 1862, as the Planter’s Confederate crew went ashore, Smalls and his fellow slaves sailed for freedom. The 23-year-old donned Relyea’s uniform, pulled a hat across his face, and prayed, “O Lord, we entrust ourselves into Thy hands. Like Thou didst for the Israelites in Egypt, guide us to our promised land of freedom.” Smalls studied his craft so thoroughly, he knew all the signals necessary to gain passage through five Confederate checkpoints – including Fort Sumter – before surrendering to the Union Navy. Smalls told the Union officer, “I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!”
Smalls and Rev. Mansfield French persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to let blacks to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Smalls recruited 5,000 black soldiers for the Union Army and participated in 17 battles – eventually becoming commander of the newly renamed USS Planter. In April 1865, he proudly saw the American flag raised over Fort Sumter.
Unlike radical black separatists, or those who believe the “original sin” of slavery renders the United States illegitimate from its founding, Robert Smalls said that he and his former slaves should determine to build the wealth and power of the United States – and prosper as a result (Jeremiah 29:7). “There are men now in Congress who are willing to vote for an appropriation out of the treasury to have us sent out of the country,” he once said, speaking of post-Civil War repatriation schemes. “We do not intend to go anywhere, but will remain right here and help make this the most powerful of all governments.”
After the war, Smalls purchased McKee’s plantation at Beaufort, where he was born a slave. When his former owner’s wife arrived at his home, delirious and convinced she still lived there, Smalls let her stay and tended to her until her death.
Smalls believed black progress required education, opportunity, and self-control. He had already learned the importance of economic might, leading a boycott that convinced Philadelphia to desegregate its streetcars. As an adult he learned how to read and opened a school for black children. He ran a store to cater to freedmen, edited the Beaufort Southern Standard, and served on the board of the Enterprise Railroad.
His fame and knowledge of the Gullah dialect powered him into politics. He strongly supported the Republican Party, “which unshackled the necks of four million human beings,” and called Abraham Lincoln “the Moses who led us out of the land of bondage.” He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 to 1870 – where he helped ratify the 1868 constitution – and the state Senate from 1871 to 1874. He promised to “guide the ship of state … past the rocks, torpedoes, and hostile guns of ignorance, immorality, and dishonesty.”
Robert Smalls served five non-consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1875–1879, 1881–1887). He passed amendments that “no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color” in the U.S. Army and another to desegregate restaurants in the nation’s capital, which Congress controlled. (Both failed in the Senate.)
Smalls turned his fellow slaves into landowners. He passed a provision allowing citizens to buy land that the Union seized during the war or from seditionists who had defaulted on their taxes. By 1890, blacks owned 75% of the land in Beaufort County – roughly equal to their share of the population. This comports with Smalls’ firm belief that blacks needed access to capital in order to advance.
Smalls also paved the way for the foundation of Parris Island and in the process became the rarest kind of politician: the kind who refuses federal money. In 1873, State Rep. Smalls petitioned the federal government to consider building a naval port in Port Royal, South Carolina. He helped further the cause when he entered the U.S. House of Representatives by securing a federal appropriation. In the words of one biographer, “While the Navy estimated the cost at $50,000, Smalls, a watchdog against government extravagance, reviewed the recommendations and persuaded the [N]avy that $40,000 would suffice.” The U.S. Marine Corps now trains 20,000 recruits at the location annually.
In 1876, the governor of South Carolina sent Smalls to break a strike of the Combahee rice workers, which threatened to erupt into racial violence. Smalls said the black workers objected to being paid in checks honored only at company stores, which charged “exorbitant prices” for shoddy goods. He convinced seven men to turn themselves in for whipping two scab workers. Then, a witness testified that Smalls told the rest “to go home and not use any violence whatsoever; that if they did not want to work for forty cents no one could make them; that they were free people and at liberty, and if they had made a contract they must fulfill it; that they must be peaceable and not interfere with any person’s property or trespass on any person’s place.” The planters peacefully acceded to the strikers’ demands.
But by 1876, Reconstruction waned, and ex-Confederate “Redeemers” crept back into power. In 1877, he was convicted of accepting a bribe on flimsy evidence in what is acknowledged to be a political prosecution; two years later, he was pardoned.
In 1895 he pleaded, eloquently and in vain, against disenfranchising blacks in the new state constitution. “It was to the interests of the white man to see that” the black citizen “got all of his rights,” as blacks “pay tax on $12,500,000 worth of property.”
After failed runs for U.S. Senate, Smalls served as the U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort from 1890 to 1893, then again from 1898 until Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist, fired him. Smalls died from malaria and diabetes on February 22, 1915, and is buried in the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Smalls believed equality of opportunity would establish the black cause. He once said, “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
Robert Smalls’ life – from slave to ruler, from property to plantation owner – proves that the American dream is open to all.