Biographical Sidebar:
Robert Smalls

Among the most celebrated black heroes of the Civil War, Robert Smalls (1839-1915) had a political career that stretched into the twentieth century.

Born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, Smalls worked on the Charleston docks before the Civil War.

Employed by the Confederacy as a pilot on the Planter, Smalls and and seven other black sailors secretly guided the ship out of Charleston harbor in May 1862 and delivered it to federal forces. In the process, Smalls succeeded in helping eight other men, five women, and three children to escape from slavery. The Confederacy offered a $4,000 reward for his capture.

He was given a reward of $1,500 and made a second lieutenant in the Union navy. Smalls later earned the rank of captain during the Civil War.

In 1864, Smalls was evicted from a segregated Philadelphia streetcar; a mass protest followed that led to the integration of the city's public transportation.

During Reconstruction, Smalls became a powerful political leader on the South Carolina Sea Islands. He represented Beaufort in the constitutional convention of 1868, published a local newspaper, and was elected to five terms in Congress.

In 1895, he was one of six black delegates to the state constitutional convention, where he protested against the decision to deprive blacks of the right to vote.

Until 1913, he held office as collector of customs at Beaufort.

In a 1913 letter to Booker T. Washington, Smalls wrote:

"During the twenty odd years I have held the position of Collector, I have succeeded to so manage affairs that when I leave it, I will do so with credit to myself, my family, and my race . . . When we go out of office we go clean. So when the excellent history of the Tuskegee and the Negro shall be written, the Customs House at Beaufort, while conducted by colored men, can be easily attached to the top or bottom, for whatever inspiration it may be to the Race."

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Copyright 2003
he Meaning of Freedom: Black and White Responses to Slavery From Free Labor to Slave Labor Rights and Power: The Politics of Reconstruction The Ending of Reconstruction Epilogue: The Unfinished Revolution Resources Credits for this Exhibit Introduction