Profession: State Representative/Senator/U.S. Congressman
Robert Smalls was born a slave in Beaufort, S.C. in 1839. He was taken to Charleston, where he worked a variety of jobs and learned seafaring before becoming the pilot of a Confederate transport steamer, the Planter. Smalls taught himself to read and write, and was determined to free himself.
On the morning of May 13, 1862, while the ship’s officers still slept, Smalls smuggled his wife and three children aboard the Planter. With his crew of 12 slaves, Smalls hoisted the Confederate flag and sailed past other Confederate ships and out to sea. Once beyond the range of the Confederate guns, he hoisted the flag of truce and delivered the Planter to the commander of the Union fleet. The ship was received as contraband, and Smalls and his black crew were welcomed as heroes. Later, President Lincoln received Smalls in Washington and rewarded him and his crew for their valor. He was given official command of the Planter and made a captain in the U.S. Navy.
After the war Smalls returned to South Carolina and served in the senate from 1868 to 1870. In 1875 he was elected to the U.S. Congress where he fought for equal travel accommodations for black Americans and for civil and legal protection of children of mixed parentage.
After leaving Congress, Smalls was duty collector for the port of Beaufort. He retained his interest in the military and was a major general in the South Carolina militia. He died on Feb. 22, 1916.