Reasons for Naming
- Escaped slavery in South Carolina by commandeering a Confederate ship, breaking through a blockade and surrendering the ship to the U.S. military.
- First Black pilot in the U.S. Navy, fought in 17 battles during the Civil War as the captain of the USS Planter
- U.S. House of Representatives member from South Carolina (Beaufort) 1874-1879, 1881-1887.
Robert Smalls (1839-1915)
Brief Biography1 by Myisha Eatmon
Robert Smalls was born into slavery on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina, to Lydia Polite, an enslaved woman, and possibly John McKee, her enslaver.2 The McKee family held Smalls and his mother in bondage. When Smalls was 12 years old, the McKees sent him to Charleston as a rented or “hired out” enslaved laborer. Smalls worked on ships in the Charleston Harbor.3
During the Civil War, Smalls’ enslavers forced him to work as a pilot on the CSS Planter, a confederate steamboat that transported arms and ammunition.4 On May 13, 1862, Smalls and the rest of the Black crew commandeered the boat and sailed to Union lines.5 On the way, Small and the crew freed Smalls’ wife Hannah, daughter Elizabeth and son Robert Jr. They disguised themselves and, using the knowledge they had gained as maritime workers, sailed the boat past Forts Sumter and Moultrie. Smalls surrendered the Planter to the U.S. Military, thus securing the freedom of everyone on the vessel. Smalls became the first Black man to become a pilot in the United States Navy.6 As the captain of the USS Planter, Smalls fought in 17 battles during the Civil War.7
During Reconstruction, South Carolinians in and around Beaufort elected Smalls to the United States House of Representatives. He served from 1874 to 1879 and 1881 to 1887.8 As “Southern Redemption,” a violent effort to usurp political power from Black Southerners and Republicans, swept South Carolina, Smalls maintained his congressional seat, though he briefly lost his seat in 1878. Smalls retired from congress in 1887, after William Elliott unseated him.9
While serving as a Representative of South Carolina, Smalls helped secure funding to improve the Port Royal Harbor and secured appropriations from the government for its use of The Citadel.10 Smalls also fought to secure full citizenship and equality for Black Americans. He resisted Jim Crow, opposing segregation of the United States Armed Forces, railroads and restaurants.11 After retiring from Congress, “Smalls was appointed the Collector of Customs in Beaufort.” He served in this position for two decades, despite dissent from local white people and the Jim Crow social, political, economic and legal regime.12
During Reconstruction, Smalls purchased the McKee Home in Beaufort. He and his family lived in the home for almost a century after the purchase.13 In an act of graciousness, Smalls allowed his former enslaver, Mrs. McKee, to remain in his home after she fell ill. Robert Smalls died on February 23, 1915, and was laid to rest in Beaufort at Tabernacle Baptist Church.14 He died not only a hero to his Black crewmates on the USS Planter and his family but also to the Union and the people of South Carolina.
1 This biography was crafted using several well-known secondary sources compiled on behalf of the United States Federal Government, including the National Park Service, the Smithsonian, and the United States House of Representatives.
2 “Robert Smalls” U.S. National Parks Service (U.S. Department of the Interior), accessed May 12, 2021. Glenda E. Gilmore, “Smalls, Robert,” American National Biography 20 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 111–112.
3 National Parks Service, “Robert Smalls.”
4 National Parks Service, “Robert Smalls.” I use the word forced because the McKees still held Smalls in bondage.
5 Cate Lineberry, “The Thrilling Tale of How Robert Smalls Seized a Confederate Ship and Sailed It to Freedom,” Smithsonian.com (Smithsonian Institution, June 13, 2017).
6 National Parks Service, “Robert Smalls.”
7 Cate Lineberry, “The Thrilling Tale of How Robert Smalls Seized a Confederate Ship and Sailed It to Freedom.”
8 Cate Lineberry, “The Thrilling Tale of How Robert Smalls Seized a Confederate Ship and Sailed It to Freedom.” “Smalls, Robert,” U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives (U.S. House of Representatives), accessed May 17, 2021.
9 U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, “Smalls, Robert.”
10 U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, “Smalls, Robert.”
11 National Parks Service, “Robert Smalls.” U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, “Smalls, Robert.”
12 National Parks Service, “Robert Smalls.”
13 National Parks Service, “Robert Smalls.”
14 National Parks Service, “Robert Smalls.”