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Smalls looms large during Black History Month

Robert Smalls

Every year during Black History Month students from all grades across the country are introduced to or reminded of African Americans who in one way or another contributed to the body politick and/or our culture.

Among the more noted examples are Dr. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Rosa Parks, Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and others.

A name missing from that list is Robert Smalls. Departing from my usual format, I’d like to tell you about him as if he were speaking — in the first person singular.

I was born into slavery on April 5, 1839 in Beaufort, S.C. My earliest memory is working with my mother Lydia in our owner Henry McKee’s house. Because she wanted me to know what it was like to experience the horrors of slavery, she took me to the fields where I witnessed men, women and children being brutally whipped and made to work under an unforgiving sun until they dropped. I told myself that ain’t gonna happen to me, and as a result I developed a defiance toward authority which landed me frequently in jail. I was 11. The next year my mom, fearing for my safety, convinced Mr. McKee to send me to Charleston where I became a laborer earning a dollar a week.

Years and many jobs later, I married an enslaved hotel maid, Hannah Jones. We had two children and, thanks to an unusually kind owner, were able to move in together. I tried to save enough money to buy our freedom, but the price (c. 800) was too high. At that point I decided that our only hope for an unchained future together would be to escape. The Civil War gave me the opportunity to do so.

After the conflict broke out, I was assigned to pilot a rebel military cargo transport, the Planter, around Charleston Harbor. After gaining the trust of my fellow Black crew members, I devised a plan. One night when the three white officers left to sleep ashore, I piloted the vessel out of the harbor and surrendered it to the Union Navy. In the process, I ensured that 16 Black men, women and children had been freed from their bondage, and by sharing my knowledge of Charleston’s defenses with the higher-ups, the boys in blue kicked the Johnny Rebs’ behinds in one of the key battles of the war. Rear Admiral Sam Dupont’s written report of the event stated that “Robert is superior to any who have come into our lines-intelligent as many of them have been.”

In the days following, I was about to reap the whirlwind.

— Our exploits, along with my picture, were detailed in Harper’s Weekly.

— Congress awarded my crew and me half of the value of the Planter as prize money.

— I met with President Lincoln and helped persuade him to allow Black men to serve in the Union army. After the meeting, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called into action 5000 former slaves.

— I became pilot of the Union ship USS Crusader, the first Black man promoted to the rank of captain.

— In 1897 (better late than never), an act of Congress granted me a pension equal to that of Navy captain.

After the war, things fell in place quickly.

With more than a touch of irony, I bought my former master’s house in Beaufort and moved there with my family. Believing that the best way to help improve the plight of my people was by getting involved in government, I was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and later, to the state Senate. In 1874 I became a member of the House of Representatives (5th Congressional District) where for years I vociferously spoke out against the disenfranchisement of Black voters across the South. In the 1890 s I was offered a US Army colonel’s commission in the Spanish-American War and later, the post of U.S. Minister to Liberia. I had to turn both down due to poor health.

Before I died from malaria and diabetes in 1915, I fought against efforts in the South to revive slavery by means of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws.

I wrote the following in what might be considered my epitaph, “As far as I was concerned, there was no purpose in engaging in pessimism as far as the future of my people was concerned. As I told the South Carolina legislature — my race needs no special defense — for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

Robert Smalls was given the chance and made more than good with it. He remains an example for all of us that when there’s the will, there’s a way. And for that he should be remembered.

Ray Lenarcic is a 1965 graduate of the State University of New York at Fredonia and is a Herkimer resident. He notes that for more than a decade, the Herkimer County Hunger Coalition has donated books to area schools and libraries in recognition of Black History Month. This year’s donations are one of the best grades three to six books ever written, Arlisha Norwood’s “The History of Juneteenth” and for pre-K through grade two, Shola Oz’s “I Am Whole.”

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