Since taking office seven years ago, President Barack Obama has taken his fair share of racial intolerant undertones. Unfortunately, President Obama’s hardships are similar to many of those first African Americans to hold office in Congress. When Senator-elect Hiram Revels of Mississippi arrived in DC to become the first African American in Congress, many Southern Democrats tried to block him from taking his seat. Even the wealthy Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina faced daily threats to his life by the Klu Klux Klan. But there is one former Member of Congress from the Reconstruction era whose tumultuous time in Congress was only due to his color and not his accomplishment. The life of Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina is a story, which is never told, yet everyone needs to hear.
Born into slavery in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls was sold by his master to work in Charleston as a dockworker. Smalls would work his way up to becoming a Wheelman, which meant he was a sea pilot without the recognition. Due to his hard work ethic, Smalls was assigned to the Confederate warship CSS Planter. During the night of May 12, 1862, he and seven other enslaved sailors would make a daring escape toward freedom. Smalls would put on the Captain’s uniform and sail the Confederate ship past the heavily armed Fort Sumter. They headed directly to the Union ship USS Onward. There Smalls and his crew surrendered their ship and it contents, which included ammunition and the heavily secretive Confederate Code Book.
It is because of this daring escape that President Abraham Lincoln was forced to recognize the need of having Blacks serve in the military. The First South Carolina Volunteers was formed in 1863 and put Robert Smalls into the national spotlight. While visiting Philadelphia, Smalls was removed from an all White trolley car. A three-year boycott forced the city to pass a law integrating public transportation, one of the first in the nation. After the Civil War ended, Smalls not only returned to his hometown, but he bought his former master’s home.
The people of Beaufort would eventually send him to the state legislature and to the United States Congress in 1874. During his tenure, Smalls would bring improvements to coastal South Carolina, while also trying to force the nation to integrate quickly. During a debate to reorganize the US Army, Smalls unsuccessfully placed an amendment to the bill calling for the integration of all branches of the military. Because of his efforts, Southern Democrats convicted him of bogus charges of accepting bribes. While he was pardoned, the threats against Black politicians forced Smalls to concede the race for his sixth term in office. Smalls would be the longest serving African American in Congress until Adam Clayton Powell of New York in 1956.
While his efforts created the blueprint for racial equality in the nation, “the hero of the Planter” Robert Smalls is largely forgotten. His historic tenure opened the door for our nation to have a conversation of the role of African Americans. When Smalls died in 1915, I am absolutely sure he would have thought we would have solved the race issue. But the words of Smalls colleague, Representative George Murray of South Carolina still reign true: “I beg all true men to forget party and partisanship and right the great wrongs perpetrated upon humble and unoffending American citizens. I declare that no class of people has ever been more misrepresented, slandered, and traduced than the black people of the South.” #ijs