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South Carolina Superheroes: Robert Smalls

In conjunction with the Hall of Heroes blockbuster exhibition and Black History Month, the State Museum is putting the spotlight on South Carolina heroes this February. Check back each week this February to get inspired and be sure to visit Hall of Heroes. For this feature we are focusing on one of South Carolina’s historical superheroes: Robert Smalls.

Robert Smalls, Image courtesy Library of Congress

Robert Smalls’ life story is a real hero’s adventure of bravery and compassion. Born in Beaufort, SC in 1839 Robert Smalls’ owner hired him out for several types of jobs. Smalls eventually became one of the best navigators on the coast. At the start of the Civil War, he had a wife and two children, but they did not have freedom. When the Union navy blockaded Charleston harbor, Smalls started to make plans. Luckily, he was navigator for the Confederate gunship C.S.S. Planter that ran out of Charleston. When the chance came to escape, he would take it.

The C.S.S. Planter, which Robert Smalls bravely sailed to freedom with family and friends aboard in 1862. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

When the white crew of the C.S.S. Planter went ashore on May 13, 1862, Smalls knew the time had come. Early that morning, he and his fellow enslaved crewmembers picked up their families without detection. Then, Smalls navigated past four checkpoints. If Confederates had caught our heroes, it would have been certain death. To avoid detection, Smalls disguised himself as the white captain while everyone else hid in the shadows. After successfully passing three checkpoints, they started toward the largest and most dangerous: Ft. Sumter. The crew urged him to stay as far away as possible. Smalls bravely decided not to change course and arouse suspicion. Nervously, he gave a signal. After a few tense moments, they got the signal to proceed. The next step was also dangerous. They were approaching Union lines in a Confederate ship. Thankfully, the Union ships did not fire on the Planter. Union officers boarded the vessel and Smalls saluted and turned over the Planter along with its cannon.

They had escaped!

Despite his heroics, when he was traveling in Philadelphia with a white colleague a streetcar conductor tried to force him to the back of the car because he was not white. Rather than ride in the segregated car, he walked across the city in the rain. His experience made headlines and helped propel the fight for streetcar integration in the city, which finally happened in 1867. Image courtesy The Library of Congress.

Robert Smalls was not finished being a hero. He served bravely in the Union navy, becoming one of the first African American pilots in the Navy and received a wound during an attack on Ft. Sumter. After the war, he continued to be a hero. He became a leader for the residents of the Sea Islands during Reconstruction. They elected him to five terms in Congress. While there, he worked to make Paris Island a naval station, which now trains thousands of brave men and women. He also published a local newspaper and served as a customs collector in Beaufort. At the 1895 state constitutional conventions that deprived blacks the right to vote, he was one of six black delegates that refused to sign in protest.

Roberts Smalls earned enough prize money from turning over the .S.S. Planter to the Union that he purchased the home of his former owner, Henry McKee. In another example of his compassion, he allowed Mrs. McKee to stay in the home because of her poor health. Smalls passed away on February 23, 1915 and is buried at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort. Image courtesy Historic American Building Survey.