Robert Smalls: An Unlikely Hero

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Nestled among the natural and historic beauty of South Carolina's low country lies the story of an unlikely hero.

Robert Smalls was born a slave in Beaufort in 1839.

"His mother Lydia was a household servant and a privileged servant," said Dr. Lawrence Rowland, a professor at the University of South Carolina.

A Faith-Filled Upbringing

"His mother was a woman of deep faith and she raised him until he turned 12," added Dr. Andrew Billingsley, a professor at the Institute for Families in Society.

"All that time she was teaching him, but she also took him with her to church."

Lydia taught her son about Jesus -- that God created men to be equal, and slaves were "supposed to be free."

His mother's faith became his own, and it shaped his life.

Smalls learned the harsh realities of slavery first-hand when his mother took him to the fields.

"She took him to see the disciplining of slaves, which was about two blocks from where we were standing at the arsenal." Rowland said. "He witnessed whippings and other forms of manual discipline."

Billingsley recounted the following experience: "One time she took him to see a young woman being whipped. He could see the face of this young lady, and he saw that this was a young woman he knew -- and his mother said he cried all the way home."

At the age of 12, Smalls was leased out by his master to work as a lamplighter and waiter in Charleston.

His owner only let him keep one of the $15 he earned each month. Smalls eventually married Hannah Jones, who was 14 years his senior.

"And he saved his money, not to buy his own freedom, but to buy his wife's freedom. There's a love story for you," Billingsley said.

He also pursued his faith in Charleston.

"And he went to different churches. He went to white churches with his girlfriend Hannah and they sat in the gallery. And he went to black churches," Billingsley said.

Steal Away to Freedom

Charleston is also where he began working on the confederate steamship "The Planter."

"He understood the waterways, he knew the passages, he could read charts," Dr. Stephen Wise, director of the Parris Island Museum said. "And through his experience as a pilot he comes to be very, very astute about the waters and how to operate small vessels."

The white officers of the ship did not spend the night aboard their vessel. Smalls used that opportunity to plan an escape with his family and other slaves aboard the ship.

"This is something that had been done on a much smaller scale by other slaves throughout the Charleston region. only he has the advantage of taking a steamship out of Charleston harbor," Wise said.

Before dawn on May 13, 1862, Smalls and the other 12 slaves began their mission -- a mission that Smalls began with a quick but fervent prayer. "Oh Lord," he said. "Be with us on this fateful journey."

Wise explained what happened next. "They took the Planter from a wharf in Charleston, steamed her up to another wharf where they picked up the other families.

Smalls is dressed in the captain's coat, wearing the captain's straw hat. He knows all the proper signals. He gives the signals as they go past the various fortifications."

Smalls made it safely to the mouth of the Charleston harbor.

Fearing a Confederate soldier would challenge him at Fort Sumter, Smalls prayed again saying, "Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves to Thee. As Thou didst deliver the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, be with us today and deliver us to our promised land of freedom."

God answered his prayer, and Smalls steered his ship out to sea.

There he approached the Union ship "The Onward" and raised a white flag, just as Union soldiers were about to fire on him. After the daring escape, the Union press hailed him a hero.

By capturing a Confederate ship, Smalls and his crew won a large sum of money. He was also honored by President Abraham Lincoln, and later became the first African-American captain in the Navy.

The Story Continues....

But Smalls' story doesn't end there. Known as the Gullah statesman, he had a long career in politics, education, and business.

He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate, and he later served 12 years in the U.S. Congress.

Driven by his faith to invest in the lives of others, Smalls also became a champion of public education and giving black men the right to vote.

As a businessman, he purchased several buildings in Beaufort, one with a story that clearly showed his Christ-like attitude.

"He bought the house of his former owner where he was raised, and he lived in it for the rest of his life," Rowland said. "One of the most interesting episodes in that house was when Mrs. McKee, who was the former owner of the house -- elderly, somewhat impoverished, and apparently somewhat addled in the head -- returned to her home to stay.

Robert Smalls owned the house, and his family was living there; and rather than turn her away, Robert Smalls brought her into the house, put her up in the bedroom that had been her bedroom before the Civil War, and served her." Smalls died in 1915 at the age of 76.

"Religion was a part of his life," Billingsley said. "It wasn't that he spoke about it all the time, but the way he acted and the things he did were reflective of that."

*Originally published February 12, 2008..

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