He sat at the conference table next to Frederick Douglass as they tried to convince President Abraham Lincoln that African Americans should be allowed to fight for their own freedom. He served five terms in Congress. He ran a newspaper and helped found a state Republican Party.
But first, he had to win his freedom.
To do that, he conceived a plan that struck a blow against the Confederacy so significant that he was heralded across the nation. Carrying out his mission required bravery, intelligence and precision timing — attributes that many whites at that time thought blacks didn’t possess.
Robert Smalls proved them wrong and changed history in the doing.
* * *
Smalls was born in Beaufort, S.C., on April 5, 1839, the son of Lydia Polite, a slave who was a housekeeper in the city home of John McKee, owner of the Ashdale Plantation on Lady’s Island, one of the Sea Islands. Though he never knew the identity of his father, it was widely believed that Smalls was the progeny of McKee’s son, Henry.
“There was a distinctly fatherly relationship between [Henry McKee] and my great-grandfather,” said Helen Boulware Moore of Lakewood Ranch, Fla., who grew up hearing stories about Smalls from her grandmother, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls Bampfield, his daughter.
Growing up at the McKees’ place, Smalls played with both black and white children, ate food cooked in the kitchen where his mother worked and slept in a bed in a small house that was provided for her. Polite had been taken from her family on the island plantation at age 9 to work as a companion to the McKee children in Beaufort.
Because of his connection to Henry McKee, Smalls was allowed “to go places and do things others couldn’t do. That could cause problems with blacks . . . and could be a dangerous thing with whites, as well,” said Michael Allen of the National Park Service’s Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which runs through South Carolina.
The town of Beaufort maintained a 7 p.m. daily curfew for blacks, but on many occasions young Smalls ignored the bell and continued to play with white children. Several times, he was taken into custody. Henry McKee paid a fine to retrieve him, Moore said.
When he was 10, his mother sent him to the plantation to learn the reality of slave life. He came back defiant, not willing to comply, as she had hoped.
“He acted as if he could do what the white children did, and that frightened her,” Moore said. “She wanted to educate him about the whole issue of slavery to save his life.”
Worried that her son would suffer consequences for his bold behavior, Polite asked McKee to rent out Smalls at age 12 to work in nearby Charleston. Each week, he was given $1 of his wages; the rest went to the McKees. He supplemented his income by purchasing cheap candy and tobacco and reselling them.
At age 18, Smalls met Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel worker who had two daughters. He sought permission to marry and live with her in an apartment in Charleston, Moore said.
“He was smart enough to know that at any moment, she and any children they had might be sold, so he asked her enslaver,” who agreed, Moore said.
Smalls became skilled at working on ships, eventually advancing to the position of pilot. In 1861, he was hired to work on a steamer called the Planter, which was used to transport cotton to ships headed to Europe. But once the Civil War started, the Confederates seized it for use as an armed transport vessel.
Smalls knew how to navigate. He knew that the white crew trusted him. He had his eye on freedom, and all he needed was an opportunity.
* * *
“They were going to seize the ship,” said Lawrence Guyot, a black-history expert in Washington. “It was dangerous. It was daring. It was unprecedented. And when they accomplished it, it was used to demonstrate that blacks could be brave and strategic in pulling off military maneuvers. Because of what happened on the Planter, Abraham Lincoln decided to let African Americans join the fight in the Civil War.”
Moore, a retired professor, pointed out that “a lot is said about [Smalls’s] patriotism, but it was not simply patriotism that led him to act. His priority was his family.”
Smalls had sought to purchase his wife, his two young children and his wife’s daughters, but the price of $800 was too steep.
In the early hours of May 13, 1862, the Planter’s crew took an unapproved furlough into town, leaving Smalls, 23, and several other black crew members aboard. Wearing a captain’s coat and hat and taking care to hide his black face, Smalls steered the ship toward a rendezvous spot to pick up the men’s families.
“It was really dangerous because they were flying the Confederate flag,” Moore said. “They made a decision that they wouldn’t be taken alive. . . . If they had been caught, they were going to ignite the explosives and die on the ship.’”