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Sunday, February 1, 2015

#BHM2015 Robert Smalls

Black History Profile: Robert Smalls

When I used to live in Beaufort, S.C., as a United States Marine Corps. wife, I didn't realize that the little town had so much history.

The name Robert Smalls was everywhere. Robert Smalls Parkway, Robert Smalls Middle School. The last name, Smalls, filled the pages of the White Pages. It wasn't until I took an African American Studies course at the Beaufort campus of the University of South Carolina where I learned about the rich African American culture that thrived throughout the Lowcountry. 

During my studies my professor talked about how Robert Smalls bought his freedom, became a pilot on the transport steamer, The Planter, and served five terms as a U.S. Congressman while the South was going through reconstruction.

Smalls was born into slavery on April 5, 1839, on the Ashdale Plantation that was situated on Lady's Island, South Carolina, a few minutes drive from Beaufort. If you were to take a trip there and ask the locals about Smalls you will learn that he was the first African American captain of a U.S. Vessel, a state legislator, and a Major General in the South Carolina Militia.

I found the following information on but the site has since been removed. However, if you do a simple Google search of Robert Smalls you'll still be able to find a the same information complied on a number of sites.

Robert Smalls Story:

In 1862, Smalls, a 23-year-old mulatto slave, was employed by Confederates in Charleston, S.C. as pilot of Planter, area commander General Roswell Ripley’s transport steamer. In the early morning hours of May 13 the ship was loaded with armaments for the rebel forts. Contrary to regulations the White captain and crew were ashore for the night. 

At about 3am, Smalls commandeered the 147-foot vessel from a dock fronting General Ripley’s home and office. Smalls and his crew sailed to a nearby dock, collected family members from another ship and headed toward sea. Aboard Planter during its dash to the Union blockading squadron were Smalls’ wife, children and 12 other slaves.

Smalls donned the captain’s broad-brimmed straw hat and assumed the captain’s typical stance – arms akimbo – in the pilot house. As he passed each rebel fort he gave the correct whistle signal and was allowed to pass. Onward, the nearest Union blockading vessel, was preparing to fire on the approaching ship when Smalls raised a white flag and surrendered.

Union press hailed Smalls as a national hero, calling the ship “the first trophy from Fort Sumter.” A Congressional bill signed by President Lincoln awarded prize money to Smalls and his associates. 

In August 1862, two Union generals sent Smalls and missionary Mansfield French to meet with Secretary of War Stanton and President Lincoln. Their request to recruit 5,000 black troops was soon granted. 

By October 1862, during a speaking tour of New York to raise support for the Union cause Smalls was presented an engraved gold medal by “the colored citizens of New York” for his heroism, love of liberty and patriotism.

Amazing! Now there is something that I didn't learn while I was in grade school. 

Is there a Black American figure who you'd like to see featured here on Arts of Cultures? E-mail your suggestions to or leave them in comment box below.

– @TCsViews

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