OKAY, LET’S TALK ABOUT ROBERT SMALLS (BECAUSE HE HAS A NAME, THANK YOU VERY MUCH).
Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839 and at the age of 12 his owner leased him out in Charleston, South Carolina. He gravitated towards working at the docks and on boats and eventually became the equivalent of a pilot, and in late 1861 he found himself assigned to a military transport boat named the CSS Planter.
On May 12, 1862, the white officers decided to spend the night on land. Smalls rounded up the enslaved crew and they hatched a plan, and once the officers were long gone they made a run for it, only stopping to pick up their families (who they notified) along the way. Smalls, disguised as the captain, steered the boat past Confederate forts (including Ft. Sumter) and over to the Union blockade, raising a white sheet his wife took from her job as a hotel maid as a flag of truce. The CSS Planter had a highly valuable code book and all manner of explosives on board.
Smalls ended up serving in the Union Navy and rose to the rank of captain there. He was also one of a number of individuals who talked to Abraham Lincoln about the possibility of African-American soldiers fighting for the Union, which became a reality.
After the war, Smalls bought his owner’s old plantation in Beaufort and even allowed the owner’s sickly wife to move back in until her death. He eventually served in the South Carolina House of Representatives (1865-1870), the South Carolina Senate (1871-1874), and the United States House of Representatives (1875-1879) and represented South Carolina’s 5th District from 1882-1883 and the 7th District from 1884-1887. He and other black politicians also fought against an amendment designed to disenfranchise black voters in 1895, but it unfortunately passed.
Smalls ended his public life by serving as U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort from 1889-1911. He died in 1915 at the age of 75.
And now you know Robert Smalls.