The life of a Beaufortonian who became a Civil War hero and U.S. congressman after being born into slavery will be examined in a new exhibit opening April 5 at the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
"The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls" began as part of the S.C. State Museum's traveling exhibits program. The exhibit traveled for three years through 13 cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Huntsville, Ala., before coming home to a venue less than 10 feet from Smalls' gravesite at the Tabernacle Baptist Church's campus, according to a news release Monday.
"The exhibit was on view at libraries, universities and museums, presenting the remarkable story of Robert Smalls to more than 75,000 people," Jeff Powley, exhibit manager, said in the release.
On May 13, 1862, Smalls and three other slaves escaped captivity in a courageous and well-planned action during the Civil War. The commandeered a Confederate ship, the Planter, in Charleston Harbor, with Smalls posing as the ship's captain and the other men as his crew.
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They passed Confederate checkpoints because they knew the correct signals and sailed to the safety of the Union forces. The daring deed made Smalls famous, and President Abraham Lincoln allowed him to lead the effort to enlist black men to fight for the Union army. Smalls helped recruit nearly 5,000 former slaves for the Union.
He entered politics at the dawn of Reconstruction. He became a leader in Beaufort County, was elected to the South Carolina legislature and in 1874 to Congress, where he served five terms. Rep. Smalls wrote legislation creating the public school system in South Carolina and dedicating land for Parris Island Naval Station.
Smalls ended his career as a customs collector at the Port of Beaufort. He died in 1915 and was buried at Tabernacle Baptist Church. A wealthy man, Smalls purchased many homes in Beaufort, including the home of his former master, Henry McKee.
The exhibit at Tabernacle includes furniture from the "big house" where Smalls and his mother were slaves; replicas of two ships that Smalls piloted during the Civil War; letters he wrote to dignitaries; pictures of his home in Beaufort, his immediate family and descendants through the generations.
The exhibit also includes copies of legislation he filed to create the first public schools in South Carolina and the Parris Island Marine Base.
"Robert Smalls is truly the quintessential American hero," state Rep. Kenneth Hodges, D-Green Pond, pastor of the Tabernacle Baptist Church, said in the release. "He left an indelible legacy of bravery, leadership and public service for our youths and all Americans."
The exhibit's opening coincides with the Tabernacle Baptist Church's celebration of Smalls' birthday at 6:30 p.m. April 5 in the churches annex, 907 Craven St. The exhibit will be there through June 19.
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-Columbia, whose district includes part of Beaufort County, will be the keynote speaker. Clyburn was the first African-American elected to Congress from South Carolina after Reconstruction.