Robert Smalls was born in 1839, son of a slave owner. Growing up, Smalls wasn’t aware of the miseries of slavery as he was removed from it. Being the master's son, he was worked less and was allowed inside to play with white children. As he started to grow up, his mother worried he wouldn’t understand the dangers of the world for black people. So when Smalls was about 10 years-old his mother made him work in the fields, witness whipping and live among his own people. As he became more familiar with slavery he decided to rebel. Fearing for his safety, his mother asked the owner to send him to Charleston to work.
After a few years of working odd jobs, 15-year-old Robert Smalls was hired as crew on a ship called CSS Planter, which had been refitted as a warship. For the next few years he learned all about the ship, even becoming the wheelman, a position almost as important as captain. He received only one dollar for every fifteen dollars he earned; the rest went to his owner.
By the spring of 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Smalls was a 23-year-old man with a wife and two children and desperate to buy his family's freedom. Freedom came at a cost. A cost of $800. After a lifetime of saving, Smalls had barely $100 to his name. But he had an idea. Smalls knew every aspect of running the ship. He knew all the shipping routes up and down the coast. And by coincidence he resembled the captain. He decided to steal the CSS Planter.
Working on the ship for about a decade gave Smalls all the knowledge that he needed for his plan. On May 13th, 1862 the CSS Planter had just got back to Charleston Harbor from a long trip. The white crew members were tired and decided to take the night off, leaving the ship for the enslaved crew to watch. As the white crew members got their break, Smalls decided to put his intricate plan into action.
Sometime during the middle of the night, the CSS Planter started its journey. Before they headed off to their destination, Smalls picked up his wife and children, as well as eight other slaves. Considering that the ship was meant for war, Smalls and the others intended to fight to the death and had all the materials they needed.
Knowing the usual routes of the ship and his resemblance to the real captain paid off. After the CSS Planter successfully passed five confederate gun batteries, Smalls lowered the rebel flag and raised the white one, then sailed toward the Union fleet. Because of the fog and darkness, Union sailors aboard the USS Onward were confused when they saw the Confederate Planter. But when they saw the white flag the command to fire was dropped. As the Planter docked on Union shores, Smalls said, “Good morning sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns sir!” Quickly the white flag was replaced by the stars and stripes.
After this courageous feat, Smalls and his family were in the north and completely free! He became a folk hero and was featured in the New York Times. After surrendering the ship, the U.S. Congress awarded Smalls and his crew half the ship's value. He also was invited to meet President Abraham Lincoln and Fredrick Douglass (a famous African American abolitionist). During the meeting Smalls was invited to lead an integrated military cause. Seeing a way to continue his fight for equality, he agreed. He joined the navy, recruited 5,000 African American soldiers, and even joined the USS Planter on attack missions in the south. He was promoted to navy captain for his bravery.
Although he was very well known, Smalls still faced discrimination, like being kicked off an all-white streetcar in Philadelphia. Smalls was determined to end racial inequality in America. He protested segregation in public transportation and a few years later, streetcars in Philadelphia were integrated.
After the war, the Smalls family returned to Charleston and with the money Smalls had earned bought his former owner's house. Soon after, he established one of the first school boards as well as one of the first schools for children of color in the region. In 1868 he ran for a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives and won; two years later was elected to the State Senate. In 1872, he started a newspaper called the Southern Standard Newspaper. And in 1874 when he ran to become a representative in the U.S. Congress he won 80% of the vote and served five terms.
Robert Smalls passed away in 1915, dying in the house where he grew up, which today is a National Historic Landmark. Smalls was determined to fight for change and didn’t mind the cost. He did much in his lifetime that many only dream of. Best of all, he did what he believed in his heart was right.
[Sources: Smithsonian Magazine; Mental Floss]