Black Heroes: Robert Smalls, from slave to Assemblyman
Robert Smalls was born a slave in South Carolina. We are not sure who his father was, it is believed that it was either his master or his master’s son and even the caretaker is a suspect. What we know is that his master favored him. They favored him so much that his mother was afraid that he did not understand the how horrible slavery really was. She asked that he be allowed to work in the fields and to see the whipping post. It worked very well.
It worked so well, that she became fearful for her son’s life because he frequently ended up in jail or defying whites. His mother asked that he be leased to Charleston to work. Her wish was granted again and he held several jobs in Charleston but his passion was on the seas. He actually piloted the ship, Planter, but was not listed as such on the ships logs.
He hatched his plan to escape in May of 1862. He had recently married and wanted to buy the freedom of his new wife and mother. On a night when they the white crew left for a party to visit family. Smalls hatched his plan. He also sneaked his wife on board and she brought a white sheet.
At the time, there was a blockade of Confederate ships that ringed Charleston Harbor to keep ships in and out. Smalls had passed them many times. He donned the Captain’s hat and jacket. The ship was heavily armed and he and his small crew of slaves decided that if captured, they would fight to the death and sink the ship.
As they began their journey, the plan worked perfectly. They passed the guard ships with no problem. The sailors on the other ships were sure that two white men had been piloting the vessel. After they cleared the Confederate vessels they faced a new danger because the Union was training their guns on the vessel. Smalls ordered his men to raise the sheet as a flag surrender. Before they were fired on, a sailor spotted the flag. Smalls was hailed as a hero and given the proceeds from the auction of the Planter, $1700, to buy the rest of his family.
After the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Smalls served from in the South Carolina Assembly as a first generation African American from 1874 to 1886. He watched as blacks were robbed of their voting rights over time during Reconstruction.