The Story Of Robert Smalls, The Born Slave Who Went On To Serve In The US House Of Representatives

In some of the world's darkest moments, we can find the most inspirational stories. There's Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., of course, both of whom started a cultural revolution. Oskar Schindler of Germany tried to do his own bit of good despite the horrors of the Final Solution. And among poor and starving children, there was always Mother Theresa to give them love and hope.

Perhaps one of the most underrated inspiring individuals is a man named Robert Smalls, who overcame the odds stacked against him and persevered despite the bondage and discrimination he endured. His tale is one of the greatest American success stories. More than rags to riches - his is a story of triumph over slavery. Smalls lived a life fuller than the average person, and his piece of unknown history deserves to be celebrated. 


  • Smalls Was Born Into Slavery In South Carolina In 1839

    On April 5, 1839, an enslaved woman named Lydia Polite gave birth to a son in Beaufort, SC. She named him Robert Smalls. Like many Black women of her time, the paternity of her child was unknown. Some guessed it was John McKee, who owned Polite, while others said it was John's son Henry. The infant received the last name Smalls after the plantation manager, Patrick Smalls, another paternal contender.

    The boy grew up on the plantation alongside his mother, but perhaps because of his likely paternity, the McKee family treated Smalls favorably - so favorably, in fact, that his mother worried her son would not understand the gravity of their reality. She instructed that he work in the fields and witness his peers at the whipping post so that he would grasp the horrific bondage his people faced.

  • He Enjoyed A Little More Freedom Than Most Black People
    Photo: American anti-slavery almanac / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    He Enjoyed A Little More Freedom Than Most Black People

    Smalls worked primarly inside the McKee home until he was a teenager. At that point, he was allowed to move to the McKee's Charleston residence at the request of his mother. This opened many career possibilities for Smalls, which was likely because of his light skin and favor with the family for whom he served. 

    Throughout his teen years, he worked various jobs at the docks and aboard ships, and became an expert navigator. Smalls was also allowed to keep a modest portion of his wages for himself. Later, he was permitted to get married and live together with his wife and family in an apartment. 

  • He Married An Enslaved Hotel Maid But Failed To Buy Her Out Of Slavery

    Smalls met Hannah Jones while she was working as an enslaved hotel maid for the Kingman family, and in 1856 the two were allowed to marry. They had two children together; Jones also had two children from a prior relationship. Knowing that his marriage to Jones wasn't enough to keep the family together permanently, Smalls sought a better solution.

    He asked the Kingmans if he could purchase his wife and children outright. They agreed, but for a steep price of $800. Being allowed to keep only $1 of his weekly wages for himself, Smalls only had $100 saved up. He quickly realized that purchasing his family outright would not be attainable, but he was determined to find another way for his family to live out their days together.

  • In 1861, He Started Working On A Confederate Supply Ship
    Photo: Miranda Pederson / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    In 1861, He Started Working On A Confederate Supply Ship

    Because of his years of work on the water and around the Charleston Port from age 17, Smalls was forced to work as a pilot on the CSS Planter after the Civil War broke out; it was a Confederate steamboat that regularly transported ammunition and other supplies.

    Smalls was highly regarded by the white crew - especially Captain Charles J. Relyea - for his knowledge of the Charleston waterways. Although he piloted the ship, he was of course not given any official rank or title by the Confederates. But Relyea trusted him so much that he'd leave Smalls in charge of the vessel while the white crew went ashore. Having his confidence on the water and the access to a ship gave Smalls an idea. 

  • At Age 23, Smalls And A Few Others Quietly Slipped His Ship Out Of The Harbor In 1862

    Smalls realized that his ability to commandeer a ship was his family's ticket to freedom. He had discussed the plan with his fellow enslaved shipmates, and they agreed to it. In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, with the white crew members having gone ashore for the night, Smalls and his accomplices sailed out of the harbor, picking up his family members and a few others along the way.

    He was dressed like Captain Relyea and adopted his mannerisms, even at 4 a.m. Smalls knew the appropriate signals to give when passing Confederate garrisons and raised no suspicion whatsoever. He knew getting past the Confederates would be one thing, but getting safely to the Union blockade without being fired upon would be another. 

  • When He Approached The Union Blockade, He Kept Them From Shooting By Waving A White Bedsheet
    Photo: J.B. Elliott / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When He Approached The Union Blockade, He Kept Them From Shooting By Waving A White Bedsheet

    Since 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had ordered a blockade of the southern harbors in hopes of choking off supplies and ammunition. Smalls realized this heavily armed blockade would be the last challenge to overcome in his escape plan. To avoid being blasted by the Union blockade 10 miles outside the Charleston harbor, Smalls's wife had thought to bring a white bedsheet for use as a flag of surrender.

    Once safely out of the Confederate guns' firing range, the crew aboard the Planter took down the Confederate flag and replaced it with the white sheet. Lieutenant J.F. Nichols aboard the Union ship Onward spotted Smalls and his crew, and ordered them to stop.

    Smalls brought the Planter up next to the Onward and informed Nichols, "Good morning, sir! I’ve brought you some of the old United States guns, sir! - that were for Fort Sumter, sir!" Realizing they were free and safe, the 16 slaves aboard the Planter began to celebrate.