Black History Month Pathfinder Profile: Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was a sailor, an educator and an advocate for the political rights of African Americans. Robert Smalls commandeered a Confederate supply ship, slipped past 2 Confederate checkpoints and sailed to freedom. There were 17 passengers total on board.

As a mulatto slave, Robert Smalls received special treatment from his owners. His mother wanted him to know about the perils of the institution of slavery so she sent him to whipping posts to witness how other slaves were treated. As a teen he was hired out to work on ships and would spend much of his life sailing. He was intelligent, resourceful and an expert navigator. Few people knew the Charleston Harbor better than Smalls.

On May 13, 1862, Smalls and his crew were determined to execute their plan or die trying. After they set sail they picked up Smalls’ wife and children and 8 more people. Smalls leaned on his knowledge of Navy signals and his resemblance to the white captain to get through Confederate checkpoints. The boat was allowed to pass without interruption. Smalls was regarded as a hero and worked to convince the Secretary of War to enlist Black soldiers. He rose to the rank of Captain before the war ended.

After the war Smalls continued to fulfill his mission to serve. He served in the South Carolina state assembly and senate and he served 5 nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1874-1886.

The Allen Ellison for Congress team salutes Robert Smalls for his courage and determination to lift others up as he climbed.