Black Heroes: Robert Smalls

Black Heroes: Robert Smalls

Carlos Este-McDonald, Reporter

Robert Smalls was an escaped slave who became a member of the House of Representatives, born on April 5, 1839 at 511 Prince Street in Beaufort S.C . Smalls escaped by taking control of a ship, and carrying him and its 17 black passengers to freedom.


His mother was a slave named Lydia who served in the house, she was taken from her family on the Sea Islands. No one really knows who Robert Smalls’ father was, although some of the speculation guessed it was either his owner John McKee, John McKee’s son, or the plantation manager Patrick Smalls. This stems from how Smalls was favored by the McKee family over other slave children.  As a consequence, his mother worried he wouldn’t see the horrors of slavery, so she set up for him to work in the fields and watch other slaves at the whipping post. This experience made Robert rebellious, he often ended up in Beaufort jail. So Robert’s mother, in order to keep her son safe, organized to go to Charleston to be rented out for work. Robert Smalls learned a lot working in the Charleston Harbor. Here he met his wife Hannah who was a slave on the Kingman family at the Charleston hotel, and earned a job on the Planter. The captain of the ship Smalls was on was Capt. Rylea, it was said he and smalls look somewhat alike. During this time, North Union blockades are putting pressure on the South Confederates, these blockades to slaves were a chance for freedom.


Robert Smalls confides a plan to escape towards the slaves of the ship, the ship picks up Smalls’ wife and children along with a few others. Smalls dons Capt. Rylea’s hat and performs the traditional coded signs when the ship approaches Fort Sumter, managing to pass without issue. The ship made it towards the blockades and raises a white flag, the crew rejoiced when the Union ships didn’t fire. They made it to freedom.

                              After the Escape

Afterwards Smalls did not have the money to buy his family’s freedom, so the U.S. Congress passed a private bill that gave Robert $1,500 for saving his wife from enemies of the government. Although, according to the Naval Affairs Committee report his pay should have been much higher. The Confederates put a 4000 dollar bounty on Smalls, thought those there couldn’t explain how he escaped. The North treated Robert Smalls as a hero, he also lobbied Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to begin enlisting black soldiers. Smalls became the captain of the Planter and was the highest paid black soldier of the war.

                                     Post-Civil War

Robert Smalls became a black politician in South Carolina serving in the assembly and senate from 1874-1886. He died in Beaufort on February 22, 1915 in the same house he was born, buried behind a bust at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. One of his most famous quotes is  “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of anyone. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”