Black History Month – Day 12

Sorry I was not around internet for a few days. I didn’t mean to neglect this blog and deprive you of our HISTORY.

Robert-Smalls-Brady-Handy

Roberts Smalls (4/5/1839 – 2/23/1915)

Robert Smalls was an African-American born into slavery in Beaufort, S.C., but during and after the American Civil War, he became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician. Robert Smalls was born in 1839 into slavery in a cabin behind the house of his master, Henry McKee, on 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina. He grew up in the city under the influence of the Lowcountry Gullah culture of his mother, Lydia Polite, a slave of McKee.

He freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862, when he led an uprising aboard a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailed it north to freedom. His feat successfully helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army. Smalls proved to be very valuable to the Union Navy, since he gave detailed information about Charleston’s defenses to Admiral Samuel Dupont, commander of the blockading fleet.

Smalls quickly became well known in the North. Newspapers described his actions, and Congress passed a bill, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, that awarded Smalls and his crewmen the prize money for the Planter. Smalls’ share was US$1,500 ($35,555 in 2016). He met President Lincoln two weeks later and gave a firsthand account of his adventure.

Smalls’ bravery became a major argument for allowing African Americans to serve in the Union Army. He worked with the Navy until March 1863, when he was transferred to the Army. Due to racism at that time, he only served as a civilian. By his own account, Smalls was present at 17 engagements in the Civil War.

With the encouragement of Major General David Hunter, the Union commander at Port Royal, Smalls went to Washington, D.C., in August 1862 with Mansfield French, to try to persuade Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to permit black men to fight for the Union. He was successful and Stanton signed an order permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal. Those who did were organized as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Regiment (Colored).

Smalls served as a pilot for the Union Navy. In the fall of 1862, Planter had been transferred to the Union Army for service near Fort Pulaski. The Union got Smalls as a naval pilot. Smalls was later reassigned to USS Planter, now a Union transport. On April 7, 1863, he piloted ironclad USS Keokuk in a major Union attack on Fort Sumter. The attack failed, and Keokuk was badly damaged. Her crew was rescued shortly before the ship sank.

In December 1863, Smalls became the first black captain of a vessel in the service of the United States. On December 1, 1863, the Planter had been caught in a crossfire between Union and Confederate forces. The ship’s commander, Captain Nickerson, decided to surrender. Smalls refused, fearing that the black crewmen would not be treated as prisoners of war and might be summarily killed. Taking command, Smalls piloted the ship out of range of the Confederate guns. For his bravery, Smalls was named to replace Nickerson as the Planter′s captain.

Smalls returned with the Planter to Charleston harbor in April 1865 for the ceremonial raising of the American flag upon Ft. Sumter.

Immediately following the war, Smalls returned to his native Beaufort, where he purchased his former master’s house at 511 Prince St. His mother Lydia lived with him for the remainder of her life. He allowed his former master’s wife (Jane Bond McKee, who was elderly) to move back into the home prior to her death.

In 1866 Smalls went into business in Beaufort with Richard Howell Gleaves, opening a store for freedmen. That same year in April, the “radical” Republicans who controlled Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s vetoes and passed a Civil Rights Act. In 1868, they passed the 14th Amendment, extending citizenship to all Americans regardless of their race.

Smalls identified with the Republican Party, saying it was “the party of Lincoln which unshackled the necks of four million human beings.” In his campaign speeches he said, “Every colored man who has a vote to cast, would cast that vote for the regular Republican Party and thus bury the Democratic Party so deep that there will not be seen even a bubble coming from the spot where the burial took place.” Later in life he recalled, “I can never loose [sic] sight of the fact that had it not been for the Republican Party, I would have never been an office-holder of any kind—from 1862—to present.”

He was a delegate at several Republican National Conventions and participated in the South Carolina Republican State conventions.

During the Reconstruction Era, Smalls was elected a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from 1865 and 1870, and the South Carolina Senate between 1871 and 1874. He also served briefly as the commander of the South Carolina Militia with the rank of major general.

In 1874, Smalls was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from 1875 to 1879. From 1882 to 1883 he represented South Carolina’s 5th congressional district in the House. The state legislature gerrymandered to change the boundaries, including Beaufort and other heavily black, coastal areas in South Carolina’s 7th congressional district, making the others with high white majorities. Smalls was elected from the 7th district and served from 1884 to 1887. He was a member of the 44th, 45th, and 47th through 49th U.S. Congresses. During consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the United States Army, Smalls introduced an amendment that “Hereafter in the enlistment of men in the Army … no distinction whatsoever shall be made on account of race or color.” The amendment was not considered by Congress. He is the last Republican to have been elected from the 5th district until 2010. He was the longest serving African-American member of Congress until Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the late 20th Century.

After the Compromise of 1877, the U.S. government withdrew its remaining forces from South Carolina and other Southern states. White Democrats had used violence and election fraud to regain control in the state legislature. As part of wide-ranging Southern white efforts to reduce African-American political power, Smalls was charged and convicted of taking a bribe five years earlier in connection with the awarding of a printing contract. He was pardoned as part of an agreement in which charges were also dropped against Democrats who had been accused of election fraud. [Foner, p. 198]

Smalls was active politically into the twentieth century. He was a delegate to the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention, and, together with five other black politicians, strongly opposed white Democrat efforts to disfranchise black citizens. They wrote an article for the New York World to publicize the issues, but the constitution was ratified. It and similar constitutions passed court challenges of the time. As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation that gave South Carolina the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.

Smalls was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort, serving from 1889 to 1911 with only a short break in service. He lived as owner of the house in which he had been a slave.

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