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Fri, 04.05.1839

Robert Smalls, Naval Hero, and Politician born

Robert Smalls

This date marks the birth of Robert Smalls in 1839. He was a Black slave who became a naval hero for the Union Army.

The son of plantation slaves, born in Beaufort, S.C., his master took Smalls in 1851 to Charleston, S.C., where he worked as a hotel waiter, hack driver, and rigger. He was forced into the Confederate Navy at the outbreak of the American Civil War and made to serve as a wheelman aboard the armed frigate "Planter." On May 13, 1862, he and 12 other slaves seized control of the ship in Charleston harbor and succeeded in turning it over to a Union naval squadron blockading the city.  This exploit brought Smalls great fame throughout the North. He continued to serve as a pilot on the "Planter" and became the ship's captain in 1863.

After the war, Smalls rose rapidly in politics, despite his limited education. From 1868 to 1870, he served in the South Carolina House of Representatives and from 1871 to 1874 in the state senate. He was elected to the U.S. Congress (1875-79, 1881-87), where his outstanding political action was the support of a bill that would have required equal accommodations for both races on interstate conveyances.

After the Compromise of 1877, and as a part of white efforts to silence Black political power and rights, Smalls was wrongfully charged and convicted of taking a $5,000 bribe five years earlier in connection with awarding a printing contract.  He was pardoned as part of a deal in which charges were also dropped against Democrats accused of election fraud.

In 1895 he delivered a moving speech before the South Carolina constitutional convention in a gallant but futile attempt to prevent the virtual disenfranchisement of Blacks. Smalls spent his last years as a political moderate in Beaufort, where he served as a port collector (1889-93, 1897-1913).  Robert Smalls, who served as a congressman from South Carolina during Reconstruction, died on Feb. 22, 1915.

To Become a Political Scientist
To Have a Military Career



Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History
Volume 1, ISBN #0-02-897345-3, Pg 175
Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, Cornel West

Black Americans In Congress 1870-1989.
Bruce A. Ragsdale & Joel D. Treese
U.S. Government Printing Office
Raymond W. Smock, historian and director 1990

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