During the month of February, BRTW ensemble members are selecting personal Black heroes to highlight everyday. These heroes may have spoken the magic words that first made them see their Black beauty, the people who inspired them to become artists, or even the person who taught them how to make proper mixed greens.
Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. At age 12 his master loaned him out, requiring him to move to Charleston. There he met and married Hannah Jones, a maid in a hotel where he worked. They were given permission from their owners to live in their own house, but because she was enslaved by another white person she and their children were still subject to being moved or sold off at will. In order to ensure the family stayed together Jones attempted to buy his wife from her owner, something that had never before been allowed.
It was during this period Smalls was assigned to steer the CSS Planter, a Confederate war ship, along with several other enslaved peoples. The white crew of the ship would make regular land excursions, leaving the ship completely manned by enslaved people (Big mistake. Big. Huge). On May 12, 1856 Smalls took advantage of their absence- he and the black crew gathered up several of their friends and relatives (including Hannah and their children), and they sailed off to the North. To do that they had to pass several Confederate checkpoints, and in order to do that they had to master and display secret Confederate naval codes—which Robert Smalls did. From Memory.
After fleeing to the North, Smalls made good use of his knowledge of Confederate warfare by joining both the Union Army and Navy. He became the first black captain of a ship in service of the United States (he was able to keep the Planter), and was decorated for his achievements in battle (I’m sure the Confederates were all “You’re killin’ me Smalls!” and Smalls was like “LoL, IKR?!”). Once the War ended Robert and his family moved right back to Beaufort, buying up his ex-master’s property and moving into the big house. He even found it in his heart to provide for both his old master and his wife, housing them on the property until their deaths (“Always stay gracious/ best revenge is your paper” indeed!).
Not content to simply win at life, Smalls went on to win at government. In succession he became a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, the South Carolina Senate, was briefly the very model of a modern Major General in the South Carolina Militia, and finally settled down to the job of US Customs Collector of Beaufort. During both his time in both military and politics he was a staunch supporter of integrating the armed forces.
Robert Smalls continued to be a badass until his death in 1915.
BRTW totally Stans for Robert Smalls, and wants you to as well. If you’d like to learn more about this magnificent human being (and trust me, you really do) check out Stuff You Missed in History Class’s amazing two part podcast.
Stay tuned for the next BHM Hero tomorrow!