Before getting into Smalls, I really need you to understand how bad the two men are that the South Carolina legislature currently insists on honoring at the U.S. Capitol. The first is John Caldwell Calhoun, an “ardent defender of slavery and segregation.” His hatred toward African Americans never abated. Although he was before the Confederacy, he laid the foundation for its racist ideals, arguing that Black people were incapable of self-government.
A statue of him has already been successfully removed from a town square in Charleston, South Carolina, which was only one block away from the site of a horrific church massacre where nine Black worshippers were murdered by a white supremacist. After the massacre, Yale and Clemson University removed Calhoun’s name from buildings named after him.
The other statue is of Wade Hampton III. He was a Confederate lieutenant general, and one of the largest slaveholders in the entire southeast region. Unsurprisingly, he left a sad, racist legacy. He led a political faction called “the Redeemers” to “redeem” the ideals of the Confederacy. His supporters were known as the Red Shirts, a violent paramilitary group who murdered dozens of African Americans in the run-up to the 1876 gubernatorial election in which Hampton was a candidate. Once he became governor, Wade Hampton defended the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan, going so far as to raise money for their personal defense funds.
Are these two men really the best South Carolina had to offer? It shouldn’t be a fight to replace these awful statues. Paying homage to South Carolina’s racist legacy shows that hatred and discrimination are not only tolerated there, but honored. Is the state legislature really having an issue coming up with better representatives? I can name a few off the top: civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune is from South Carolina. Former NASA Administrator Brig. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. is a sandlapper. The legendary “Godfather of Soul” James Brown also hailed from the Palmetto state, as did abolitionist and women’s rights activist Angelina Grimke, physicist and astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair, and even the current host of The Late Show. (After all, if Rush Limbaugh can get a bust, why not Colbert?)
Yet, to me, it’s particularly galling that with all of the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans, there is not one statue representing them in the U.S. Capitol building. There seems to be plenty of statues honoring traitors to our nation, however. South Carolina could be the first state to have a statue honoring a true Civil War hero who happens to be Black. That person is Robert Smalls.
Robert Smalls was an enslaved African American who led a contingent of enslaved men and women in a daring escape to freedom on a Confederate supply ship. He became the first Black sea captain for the United States, and was a military adviser to President Abraham Lincoln who convinced him to let African Americans fight in the war.
After the war, he was promoted to brigadier-general of South Carolina’s Second Brigade. He also became a wealthy entrepreneur, running several successful businesses. Finally, he was elected to both houses of the South Carolina legislature, and won several terms to the U.S. House of Representatives. His journey was truly amazing.
Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839, to an enslaved woman, Lydia Polite, at the McKee plantation. His father’s identity is not known, but it is believed to be Henry McKee, the son of the plantation owner. Sadly, plantation owners and their sons often felt it their right to engage in sexual activity with enslaved women.
When Smalls was 12, Polite begged the plantation owner to send him away somewhere for a better life. Smalls was sent to work as a sail rigger in Charleston; however, during his time away, his mother was sold, and Smalls would never see her again. He worked various jobs in Charleston, but was only allowed to keep one dollar a week. The rest had to go to McKee.
Working on Confederate ships, Smalls learned to become a sailor. At 17, he married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel maid who worked in Charleston. Jones already had one daughter, and together she and Smalls had a daughter and a son, Robert Jr., who later died of smallpox. Smalls attempted to buy his wife and family out of slavery, but the family who enslaved her wanted over $800—which would be $22,000 in today’s money. For someone who made a dollar a week, that was impossible.
When the Civil War broke out in March 1861, Smalls was conscripted into the Confederate Navy. He was a deckhand on a Confederate supply ship called the CSS Planter, a converted cotton steamer that transported supplies between forts in Charleston Harbor. Smalls hatched a plan to hijack the ship, and use it to free a group of 16 enslaved people. Over several months, Smalls learned everything he could about the ship’s navigation and controls.
His moment came when the white officers on the ship had decided to book hotel rooms in Charleston. Smalls dressed in a captain’s uniform, and then, late at night on May 13, 1862, he and a small crew made their escape out of Charleston Harbor. The group included Smalls’ wife and kids.
For several harrowing hours, Smalls had to navigate the ship through no less than five military checkpoints. Smalls had learned the correct signals to use that allowed him to pass through all of them, including one at the heavily fortified Fort Sumter. If he would have been caught, the consequences for all of them would have been dire. After the last checkpoint, Smalls was permitted to pass into the open water. He immediately steered the ship toward the Union blockade. Smalls was just 23 years old.
The first union ship to spot the CSS Planter was the USS Onward. The union crew mistakenly thought that Smalls’ ship was trying to attack, and almost fired upon it. Smalls quickly ordered the Confederate flag to be lowered and raised a giant white sheet, which had been sewn by his wife. Luckily, the crew spotted the white flag before firing, and allowed Smalls to turn over the seized Confederate ship.
The ship turned out to be a treasure trove of information and equipment for the Union. There were tons of guns and ammunition, and many important documents that gave away the Confederate shipping routes, hidden mine locations, and the days and times that Confederate ships docked, made repairs, and departed.
The story of his courageous escape became a phenomenon throughout the U.S., and word reached President Abraham Lincoln. Smalls was invited to be a war adviser to the president, and he sat at the conference table next to Frederick Douglass. Both he and Douglass teamed up to convince President Lincoln that African Americans should be allowed to fight for their own freedom. Although initially opposed, Lincoln would eventually be convinced. He was aided by the Union press, which heralded him a hero. The New York Daily Tribune bluntly asked “What white man has made a bolder dash or won a richer prize in the teeth of such perils during the war?”
When Lincoln authorized African Americans to serve in the Union military, Smalls went on a tour recruiting thousands of African Americans to serve in the Union army. Congress was so grateful for his efforts they bestowed a $1,500 cash prize and asked him to go on a speaking tour to recount his heroics. He was also awarded a Gold Medal.
He would later pilot the ironclad USS Keokuk. The ship would suffer a severe onslaught in battle, becoming “completely riddled” in the words of the ship’s commander. However, thanks to the piloting skills of Smalls, he was able to withdraw it under its own power and anchor out of range before the ship sank. All of the crew, including Smalls, were injured, yet Smalls was able to save them. A quartermaster aboard the ship at the time was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Later, Smalls would be reunited with the USS Planter, but this time as its pilot. The ship was converted to a Union supply ship, and was under the command of Captain Nickerson. On December 1, 1863, the ship came under intense fire from Confederate artillery. The captain ordered Smalls to surrender, but Smalls refused—knowing the fate of the runaway slaves onboard would not be pleasant. The captain panicked and hid below while Smalls took command. Smalls steered the vessel out of range under massive shelling. For his heroism, he was promoted to Captain of the USS Planter, the very ship he had stolen. This also marked the first time an African American was made a ship captain in the U.S. Navy. The crew was intimately aware of his heroism and he was afforded the respect of everyone on board, regardless of race.
Robert Smalls would serve in 17 combat and reconnaissance missions around Charleston before the war ended. After the war, Smalls was promoted to brigadier-general of the South Carolina’s Second Brigade militia. Back in Beaufort, Smalls made several investments in his community. He started a needed general store, gave the town a newspaper, and built a school for African American children.
In another twist of fate, Smalls was able to buy the McKee plantation where his family had been enslaved. The plantation owner, and Small’s likely father, Henry McKee, had his estate seized for his refusal to pay taxes. Smalls successfully bought it, and McKee tried to sue to get it back. Unfortunately for McKee, he lost the court case, which established precedent in similar cases.
The plantation owner’s wife, Jane Bond McKee, had become destitute. In an incredible act of generosity, Smalls took her in and allowed her to live in his newly acquired home until her death.
Smalls’ fame and prestige helped him to go on to win political office. He served as a delegate to the state’s constitutional convention, and was later elected to both the South Carolina House of Representatives and the state Senate. He then went on to become a U.S. congressman. He was a champion of civil rights and public education for all students.
He retired as a representative and spent his remaining years as a U.S. Customs collector in Beaufort from 1889 to 1911. He remained active in politics and fought for South Carolinians for the rest of his life. He died in his Beaufort estate on February 23, 1915, at the age of 75.
The heroic story of Robert Smalls, along with many other important, historical figures that are people of color, are not taught in classrooms. Yet I vividly recall an entire section in my eighth-grade Western Civilization textbook that discussed the Ku Klux Klan, down to the detail of their stupid ranks and the types of parades they held. (I can still describe a “konclave”—how useful do you think that has been in life?)
My Virginia classmates and I learned from the “Lost Cause” textbooks that elevated Confederate soldiers to heroes who “fought valiantly for state’s rights,” while Black heroes and their accomplishments were entirely ignored—along with the racist ideology and atrocities of the Confederacy. This is one reason why so many Southerners are hellbent on keeping the monuments dedicated to an enemy nation of the United States.
In South Carolina, removing a statue or monument requires a two-thirds majority vote in the state legislature. That law, called the Heritage Act, was passed in 2000 as a compromise to get conservatives to agree to lower the Confederate flag from the statehouse dome and erect an African American monument on statehouse grounds. As expected, the act has been applied exclusively to stopping removal of any Confederate or segregationist monument.
Unfortunately, the Heritage Act also includes a moratorium on any new monuments on state House grounds. So while there are plenty of tributes to Confederates, there is not one statue of any Reconstruction-era politician. However, two South Carolina state senators—a white Republican and a Black Democrat—are fighting to get a Robert Smalls monument at least established in the South Carolina State House. Democratic Sen. Darrell Jackson has been a fan of Smalls for years. Republican Sen. Greg Gregory signed on after reading Smalls’ biography. “This was an amazing man,” Gregory said. “But few South Carolinians know about this great citizen.”
One person who does know about Robert Smalls is State Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter. When Daily Kos asked her about her thoughts on replacing one the current Confederate monuments in the Capitol building with a statue of Smalls, she sent a tweet supporting the effort. She recommended contacting former South Carolina Rep. Kenneth Hodges. Hodges is the current pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church, which is where Robert Smalls is buried, and a Robert Smalls historian.
Hodges was instrumental in helping me fill the gaps in my research into Smalls’ background. He said it is wrong that someone who has contributed so much to South Carolina, and was elected five times to Congress, was not being honored by the Legislature—especially when compared to those who do have monuments. Nonetheless, thanks to the Heritage Act, it continues to be an uphill battle to honor Robert Smalls at the State House.
In the U.S. Capitol, however, it’s a different story. The bill that passed the House, H.R. 3005, passed overwhelmingly. It requires removal of persons who served voluntarily in the C.S.A. or in militias in open rebellion against the U.S., as well as the statues of Charles Brantley Aycock, John Caldwell Calhoun, and James Paul Clarke. (It also requires the bust of Roger Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, to be replaced with Thurgood Marshall.)
The legislation has moved to the Senate, and although it is currently stalled while Democrats focus on infrastructure, they have vowed to advance it. It has a shot at passing since Republicans have, by and large, been focused on keeping racist laws and policies alive that keep them in power, rather than fight over monuments or commemorations that paint them in a racist light. In fact, the Senate voted overwhelmingly in June to make Juneteenth a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery; and back in January, Republicans even bucked Trump by overriding a veto to direct that the military rename bases named after Confederate leaders.
Of course, South Carolina doesn’t need to wait for the federal government to act. They can remove the Calhoun and Hampton statues on their own and put forth a real Civil War hero and popular legislator of whom all South Carolinians can be proud. Erecting a monument to honor Robert Smalls to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Capitol is a very small step, but it’s a big step in the right direction.