Beaufort News

A warrior in 'the battle of life'

Robert Smalls was born a slave.

Before he died at his Beaufort home -- 100 years ago this week -- he was a national war hero who had served five terms in Congress and met with President Abraham Lincoln, convincing him of the importance of allowing African Americans to serve in the U.S. Army.

But his brand of politics was more local than national. Known as the "King of Beaufort County," he secured the first funds for the purchase of what is today Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, raised money for Beaufort's first public school and was a booster of economic development in a brief period when the county was a center of industry rather than agriculture.

He was a delegate to two state Constitutional Conventions, one that gave African Americans a seat at the table of democracy, and one that took it away.

A wealthy entrepreneur, he bought the home on Prince Street where he was born into slavery. And remarkably, he later cared for the family of his one-time master there.

Smalls was sitting on the porch of that home on Feb. 23, 1915, when his extraordinary life came to an end at age 76.

By then, the political world had turned against him. Not a word of his death or funeral was reported in The Beaufort Gazette.

But he's experiencing a resurgence now as Beaufort County, and the nation, are realizing the lasting impact of his life.


Lydia Polite was a 43-year-old house servant -- a coveted spot in the hierarchy of Southern slaves -- when she had a baby she named Robert Smalls on April 5, 1839.

No one knows the identity of the baby's father, but speculation includes the master of her home, Henry McKee, who owned Ashdale Plantation on Lady's Island, according to biographies about Smalls.

Smalls' life was never the norm. In slavery he had the nurture of his mother. And Henry McKee served as a supportive father figure, teaching him everything except to read and write.

Polite was allowed to go alone to visit her mother on weekends, and worship with her. Religion formed one of life's foundations for young Smalls, writes Andrew Billingsley in his book, "Yearning to Breathe Free."

But in this insular environment, Polite wanted her son to know the full scope of slavery. Smalls' descendants have said she took the young boy to see a slave auction and a slave beating.

As a boy, Smalls loved to run to the docks with all the other children in town when they heard a steamer's whistle blow. Historian Lawrence Rowland of St. Helena Island believes Smalls always saw the steamer -- and its exotic connection to an unknown world -- as a symbol of freedom.

When Smalls was 12, his mother convinced McKee to send him to Charleston to learn a trade rather than the fields of Lady's Island.

McKee's response was typical of his lifelong kindness to the mother and child.

In 1851, McKee and an old carriage driver named George delivered Robert Smalls to Charleston. His wages of $5 per month as a Planter's Hotel busboy went to his owner, but Smalls had a better idea.


Smalls was semi-literate -- even when he served in Congress.

But he knew numbers. From childhood he could make money multiply, Rowland said.

In Charleston, he quickly took a second job, lighting street lamps. He migrated to jobs on the vibrant waterfront and became a master of the waterways. He was often placed in positions typically reserved for workers much older than he. A natural leader, he was comfortable conversing with everyone, from cotton brokers to cotton pickers.

And Smalls was a good negotiator, working out deals to keep the extra money he made.

He soon made a deal to marry Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid. Both masters had to agree, and they wed in a gala ceremony in Beaufort on Christmas Eve 1856. He was 17. She was 31, with two daughters, ages 14 and 12.

When their first child, Elizabeth Lydia, was born in 1858, Smalls made another deal. He wanted to buy his wife's freedom. The price for his wife and daughter was $800, Billingsley wrote. He had $100 and promised to pay the rest over time.

Smalls had gotten work on a dashing new steamer called the Planter, a high-tech marvel powered by two steam engines, one for each flywheel. She was 147 feet long and drew only 3 1/2 feet of water in hauling cotton to market.

When the Civil War broke out in Charleston, the Planter was leased to the Confederacy.

She became a gunboat, hauling people and ammunition. Smalls found himself a helmsman working for the wrong side.

He had a better idea about how to use the boat.


On May 13, 1862, Smalls launched the Planter into American history.

After careful planning and observation, Smalls and crew boarded the boat at 3 a.m., fired it up and steamed into danger.

The Confederate officers who should have been aboard the Planter were sleeping in town. Smalls and 17 family members and enslaved associates took advantage of that absence.

Smalls knew the correct signals as they were waved through five checkpoints. He wore a broad straw hat as the captain would have worn. He leaned against a door as the captain would have leaned.

The boat eased close by Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began.

By the time the sun peeped above the ocean's horizon, it was too late for the humiliated Confederates to stop the Planter. She was speeding toward freedom, but also toward all but certain death.

State and rebel flags were replaced by the Union flag and a large white sheet in hopes federal blockade ships outside the Charleston Harbor wouldn't blast them into the sea.

It worked.

"I thought this ship might be of use to Uncle Abe," Smalls is quoted as telling the captain after surrendering the Planter to the USS Onward.

At the end of a long day, Smalls found himself aboard a ship off of Hilton Head Island, facing U.S. Navy blockade flag officer Samuel F. DuPont. DuPont said Smalls was articulate, well-groomed and smart, writes biographer Edward A. Miller Jr.

The great escape made Smalls an overnight sensation in the North, and gave a psychological boost to African Americans everywhere. Within two weeks, Congress had approved a reward for the Planter's crew, with Smalls winning $1,500.

He piloted the Planter on contract throughout the war, the first black captain of a U.S. ship. He reported being involved in 17 military engagements.

At home, Smalls bought the McKee house in 1863 at a tax sale for $650.

His life had come full circle.

He was free and had wealth.

Meanwhile, his former owners, the McKees, had lost everything. One of the most endearing stories of Smalls' life is that he took in and cared for the former mistress of the home after Henry McKee died.

"Just as the McKees had been kind to him and his mother during slavery, Smalls returned their kindness in full measure after the war," Billingsley wrote.


Beaufort was a perfect place for Smalls to become a political boss.

He was a local hero in an area that was more than 80 percent black. Its Union military presence and a number of whites who wanted to see freedom work empowered Smalls in his fight for black suffrage and civil rights.

Elected to the S.C. State House in 1868, Smalls was known as a great public speaker with an uncanny ability to connect with his audience, Rowland said. And he wasn't beyond showmanship, using the high-stepping Allen Brass Band of Beaufort to herald political rallies that attracted as many as 1,000 people.

He didn't mind displaying his power either, handing out appointments to solidify his political machine, according to historians.

As major general in the state militia, he used its blue-coated members to oversee polling places.

Smalls also used his position to oppose federal troops leaving the South and pushed for government spending to revive the region.

He didn't seem to hate the whites who had once lorded over he and other blacks. Smalls fought for financial relief for his former owners, the McKees, and others who lost land during the Civil War.

But the Reconstruction era, one associated with rampant fraud and graft in state government, also took a toll on Smalls.

In 1877, as whites tried to clear out black politicians, Smalls was convicted of accepting a bribe involving a state printing job four years earlier.

Smalls was pardoned before his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was heard. He professed irritation because he wanted the charge dismissed.

While he was subsequently returned to Congress by the voters, Smalls' opponents saw to it that he dragged that baggage until he left Congress in 1886 and became the longtime federally appointed customs collector in Beaufort.


Today, the legacy of Smalls rings around cash registers, voting booths and school classrooms.

Railroads, ship building, a military presence, phosphate mining and a port coaling station were ingredients of an energetic local economy of the 1870s and 1880s.

Smalls was a booster for all of it.

Personally, he invested heavily in property and in small businesses, including a livery taxi service, a store and a newspaper. He also invested in larger enterprises, such as a steamboat and a black-owned and operated railroad in Charleston.

Biographers say Smalls was frugal, punctual and an unarmed, fearless peacekeeper.

He was also an opportunist who harangued the federal government for years for a service pension for his work aboard the Planter. And he pressed for a higher reward for the Planter crew.

He had a temper but was better known for his sense of humor, the ability to impress people and to move on after setbacks. Billingsley, a sociologist, attributes that in large part to the nurture of his mother and spiritual faith.

Smalls hired personal tutors later in his life, but historians say he emphasized education in his family and in public policy because the lack of formal schooling was his greatest handicap.

Still, Miller wrote in his biography "Gullah Statesman," Smalls "was unquestionably the longest serving and possibly the foremost ethnic leader in the history of the state."

Miller said: "Although not a revolutionary, (Smalls) never failed to protest injustice and sought constantly throughout his life to improve social, political, and economic conditions for black South Carolinians."

Much of that centered on the American franchise -- the vote.

His last public political role was as delegate to the 1895 state Constitutional Convention, which ushered in the Jim Crow era.

Smalls was among only six black Republican delegates, and they went down swinging as they watched their hopes and dreams die.

Smalls let the others do most of the talking, as was typical. But when U.S. Sen. Benjamin "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman of South Carolina dragged out a long reiteration of the bribery trial against Smalls, he rose to refute it, point by point. In that speech came his most memorable public statement:

"My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be as good as any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."


State Rep. Ken Hodges, D-Hodges, thinks about Robert Smalls every day.

He has to, really.

Out in the courtyard of Beaufort's Tabernacle Baptist Church, where Hodges serves as pastor, is a bust of Smalls, erected by Beaufort County in 1976. It's also where Smalls is buried.

His funeral was a large affair at the First African Baptist Church across town. The Allen Brass Band led the slow march to Tabernacle, where a choir sang "Shall We Meet Beyond the River," according to a report in the Savannah Tribune, a weekly paper catering to the black community.

Etched beneath the bust are Smalls' words about an "equal chance in the battle of life."

"I think that sums up his philosophy," said Hodges, who has a Robert Smalls Room in his LyBensons Gallery and Studio on Charles Street in downtown Beaufort. "It's inspirational. It's motivational."

While Smalls was written out of history by whites, his story was kept alive in the African-American community by descendants, including Dolly Nash and Helen Boulware Moore. And educators at the former all-black school in Beaufort, Robert Smalls High School, always told his story.

One of Beaufort's major thoroughfares bears his name, as does a public school.

Today,100 years after his death, Smalls is experiencing a resurgence across all races and creeds.

In 2007, when Billingsley's biography was published, the University of South Carolina Beaufort held two days of forums and lectures about Smalls.

The U.S. Army named a 314-foot logistics support vessel for Smalls in 2007.

Many books about Smalls have been published in recent years, including a children's book, "Robert Smalls: The Boat Thief," that is part of the Robert F. Kennedy "American Heroes" series.

A traveling exhibition called "The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls" is making the rounds nationally. And visitors can see two historical markers about Smalls on the Charleston waterfront, dedicated in 2012.

Smalls will get another historical nod in 2016, when he is anticipated to be prominently featured in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

But perhaps his greatest tribute is that solemn bust in the Tabernacle Baptist Church courtyard in his home county -- a county that he loved to the end.

"Our young people have so many more opportunities than he did," Hodges said. "All you have to do it is take advantage of it."