MAY 13, 1862
During the Civil War, Robert Smalls and other Black Americans who were enslaved commandeered an armed Confederate ship in Charleston. Wearing a straw hat to cover his face, Smalls disguised himself as a Confederate captain. His wife, Hannah, and members of other families joined them.
Smalls sailed safely through Confederate territory by using hand signals contained in the captain’s code book, and when he and the 17 Black passengers landed in Union territory, they went from slavery to freedom. He became a hero in the North, helped convince Union leaders to permit Black soldiers to fight and became part of the war effort.
After the war ended, he returned to his native Beaufort, South Carolina, where he bought his former slaveholder’s home (and allowed his widow to live there until her death). He served five terms in Congress, one of more than a dozen Black Americans to serve during Reconstruction. He also authored legislation that enabled South Carolina to have one of the nation’s first free and compulsory public school systems and bought a building to use as a school for Black children.
After Reconstruction ended, however, white lawmakers passed laws to disenfranchise Black voters.
“My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country,” he said. “All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
He survived slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the beginnings of Jim Crow. He died in 1915, the same year Hollywood’s racist epic film, “Birth of a Nation”, was released.
A century later, his hometown of Beaufort opened the Reconstruction Era National Monument, which features a bust of Smalls — the only known statue in the South of any of the pioneering congressmen of Reconstruction. In 2004, the U.S. named a ship after Smalls. It was the first Army ship named after a Black American. A highway into Beaufort now bears his name.