Historical Abolitionist of the Month: Robert Smalls

By Katie Masi

The fight to end slavery is rooted in history and extends until today. Each month we profile some of the brave men and women, both contemporary and historical, who have fought to eradicate slavery. Our historical abolitionist of the month is Robert Smalls.

Robert Smalls used his intelligence, bravery, and cunning to free himself, his family, and many fellow African Americans. Smalls was born a slave in 1839 to mother Lydia Polite on the McKee family plantation. It is assumed his father was the plantation owner’s son, Henry McKee.

As a child, Smalls had privileges not usually awarded to enslaved children; he played with both white and black children in the neighborhood, wore nice clothes, and slept on a bed in a small house. Polite, worried her son did not understand the true horrors of slavery, arranged for him to spend time with her family on another plantation. He came back defiant and began challenging authority. Fearing once again for her son’s safety, Polite asked McKee to rent Smalls out to work in Charleston.

In Charleston, Smalls worked on the Planter, a ship that transported cotton to Europe. There he learned how to pilot the ship and conduct the duties of the Captain. At the start of the Civil War, the Confederate Army requisitioned the Planter. One night, Smalls, with the assistance of some of the other enslaved men, commandeered the Planter and sailed to freedom with his family. Because of his familiarity with the waters and Confederate signals, Smalls easily sailed past the Confederate blockades to the Union ships and surrendered.

His daring escape earned him a meeting with President Lincoln and captain position in the Union Navy, becoming one of the highest paid African American soldiers. Smalls also worked as a recruitment officer and convinced over 5,000 African Americans to join the Union.

From 1868-1874, Smalls served in the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate, then as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1875-1887. As a member of Congress, Smalls continued to fight for full rights for African Americans.

Robert Smalls was the first African American hero of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, he was appointed Major General in the South Carolina Militia. As we celebrate the work of Smalls and the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which legally abolished slavery in the United States, we must acknowledge that an estimated 21 million people are still enslaved today.

Human trafficking is a low risk, high reward crime. To combat modern day slavery, the U.S. government should strengthen partnerships with the private sector, increase prosecution of all actors involved in the crime, and allocate adequate resources to the cause. To learn more about our approach to bankrupting slavery, see our blueprint, on “How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking.”


Published on December 18, 2015


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