Born into slavery in 1839, Robert Smalls grew up working on a South Carolina plantation. When he was old enough, the plantation owner sent him to work at the docks in Charleston Harbor. It was there that he learned everything about ships. By the time the Civil War came around, Smalls had become an experienced seaman and was sent to work on the Confederate Navy ship called The Planter.
Smalls had also started a family, with permission from his master, of course. He married Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel worker with two children. But Smalls knew that at any moment, Hannah’s children could be sold to another master somewhere else. He needed a plan for freedom, and he needed it fast. What he did next was nothing short of amazing.
Before the crack of dawn on May 13th, 1862, while the white officers slept in their homes, Smalls crept aboard The Planter. With the help of eight other black seamen, he guided the ship out of the harbor in the dark night. He made a stop at another set of docks to pick up family members who were waiting in hiding.
But they weren’t in the clear yet. They had to sail past a handful of military checkpoints on their way to freedom. But Smalls knew just what to do, as he had been watching the ship’s captain over the years and learning his military hand signals. Disguised as the captain, he guided the ship safely past five Confederate checkpoints. By the time anyone realized The Planter had been nicked, Smalls and his crew had reached Union waters. They were free!
But the story of Robert Smalls didn’t end there. He then joined the Union navy and fought bravely in 17 battles. He was promoted to captain and became the highest ranking and highest paid black officer in the Civil War. When the war was over, he entered politics, serving in South Carolina’s House of Representatives and Senate. Later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874, where he fought to make the South a better place for African-Americans.
And the plantation where Smalls had grown up as a slave? He bought it after the war and lived there until his death in 1915. On his gravestone were the following words: “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.”