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Who is Robert Smalls?” you might ask. “Beats me” would have been my answer prior to my recent visit to Beaufort, S.C. Mr. Smalls was never included or mentioned in any history books or classes I had. His exclusion is a sad commentary on America’s past and present attitude toward black Americans and their contributions to this country.

Mr. Smalls – a former African American slave – was born April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, S.C. His mother was Lowcountry Gullah. Although there is some debate about its geographic definition, the Lowcountry is defined as the geographic and cultural area along South Carolina’s coast, including the Sea Islands. Originally, the term “Gullah” was used to refer to the language spoken by African slaves brought to the Lowcountry, but Gullah also became a cultural designation. Today, the Gullah (also called Geechee, but Geechee may be derogatory in some usage) are African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia.

Mr. Smalls married on Dec. 24, 1856. With the help of enslaved crewmen, he freed himself and his family from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering the Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter in Charleston Harbor, and sailing it to the Union blockade.

Mr. Smalls provided valuable information to the Union Navy. President Lincoln rewarded Smalls and his crewmen with prize money for the capture of the CSS Planter. Mr. Smalls’ deeds supported the service of African Americans in the Union Army.

After the Civil War, Mr. Smalls returned to Beaufort where he purchased his former master’s house. He allowed his former master’s wife – elderly and confused – to move back in the home until her death. It was said that she never knew that the house did not belong to her.

“Mr. Smalls founded the South Carolina Republican Party and was elected to the General Assembly, where he helped draft the S.C. Constitution of 1868, creating the first public education system in the state. He was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. [The Republican Party was the party of President Lincoln, the party that freed the slaves.]

“At the state convention in 1895, Mr. Smalls watched helplessly as the white majority stripped blacks of their right to vote and imposed Jim Crow laws upon the state.” (“Charleston begins to address black history with Robert Smalls memorial” by Will Moredock; Charleston City Paper, May 9, 2012.)

Mr. Smalls died on Feb. 23, 1915. He had been a ship’s pilot, a sea captain and a politician. He played a major role in American history and should be included in every class and textbook on the history of the United States of America.

Peggy Tarr

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...