Robert Smalls Refused to Let Shackles Hold Him Back
His daring escape led to real change
When Robert Smalls was enslaved in Charleston harbor at the age of 12, he gained invaluable information about his surroundings. Nobody knew the local waters like he did, and the Confederacy used that to their advantage. When the Civil War began, they put him to work aboard the CSS Planter, a military transport vessel.
Late one night, he disguised himself as the captain of the Planter, and with the help of his crew, crept out of Charleston Harbor totally undetected, cruised up to a Union blockade and left Charleston behind for a better life in the North.
With that freedom, Robert set his goals even higher, successfully convincing President Lincoln to allow Black men to enlist for the first time ever. Smalls became a pilot and captain in the Union Navy, engaging in 17 major Civil War battles. His service earned him so much respect, that when a Philadelphia bus driver told Robert to give his seat to a white passenger, lawmakers integrated public transportation statewide.
And still, Robert kept pushing for change. He moved back to Charleston a free man and became a prominent entrepreneur. His community involvement and recognition led to his election to the South Carolina House of Representatives, where he introduced the Homestead Act, giving freed slaves settlement opportunities in the West.
The night he escaped his chains, Robert set the wheels in motion to help entire generations of Black folks get ahead too.
Check out other stories from the past: