An escaped slave and a Civil War hero, Robert Smalls served five terms in the U.S. House, representing a South Carolina district described as a “black paradise” because of its abundant political opportunities for freedmen.1 Overcoming the state Democratic Party’s repeated attempts to remove that “blemish” from its goal of white supremacy, Smalls endured violent elections and a short jail term to achieve internal improvements for coastal South Carolina and to fight for his black constituents in the face of growing disfranchisement. “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere,” Smalls asserted. “All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”2
Robert Smalls was born a slave on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, Lydia Polite, was a slave who worked as a nanny, and the identity of Robert Smalls’s father is not known, but Smalls had distinct mulatto features.3 Owned by John McKee, he worked in his master’s house throughout his youth and, in 1851, moved to the McKees’ Charleston home. Smalls was hired out on the waterfront as a lamplighter, stevedore foreman, sail maker, rigger, and sailor, and became an expert navigator of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. In 1856, he married Hannah Jones, a slave who worked as a hotel maid in Charleston. The couple had two daughters: Elizabeth and Sarah. A third child, Robert, Jr., died of smallpox as a toddler.4 The Smalls lived separately from their owners, but sent their masters most of their income.5
During the Civil War, the Confederate Army conscripted Robert Smalls into service aboard the Planter, an ammunitions transport ship that had once been a cotton steamer. On May 13, 1862, a black crew captained by Smalls hijacked the well–stocked ship and turned it over to the Union Navy. Smalls became a northern celebrity.6 His escape was symbolic of the Union cause, and the publication of his name and former enslaved status in northern propaganda proved demoralizing for the South.7 Smalls spent the remainder of the war balancing his role as a spokesperson for African Americans with his service in the Union Armed Forces. Piloting both the Planter, which was re–outfitted as a troop transport, and later the ironclad Keokuk, Smalls used his intimate knowledge of the South Carolina Sea Islands to advance the Union military campaign in nearly 17 engagements.8
Smalls’s public career began during the war. He joined free black delegates to the 1864 Republican National Convention, the first of seven total conventions he attended as a delegate.9 While awaiting repairs to the Planter, Smalls was removed from an all–white streetcar in Philadelphia on December 30, 1864. In the following months, his celebrity allowed him to lead one of the first mass boycotts of segregated public transportation. A city law finally permitted integrated streetcars in 1867.10
At the war’s conclusion, Smalls received a commission as brigadier general of the South Carolina militia. He then purchased his former owner’s house in Beaufort, but he was generous to the economically devastated McKees.11 Having received a rudimentary education from private tutors in Philadelphia during the war, Smalls continued his studies after settling in Beaufort.12 He embarked on business ventures, opening a store and a school for black children in 1867. He also published a newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard, starting in 1872.13 Smalls’s impressive résumé and his ability to speak the Sea Island Gullah dialect enhanced his local popularity and opened doors in South Carolina politics. He joined other prominent black and white politicians as a delegate to the 1868 South Carolina constitutional convention. Later that year, Smalls won his first elective office: a term in the state house of representatives. From 1870 to 1874, he served in the state senate, chairing the printing committee.
In 1874, redistricting gave Smalls the opportunity to run for the U.S. Congress in a southeast South Carolina district with a majority–black constituency (68 percent of the population). In Smalls’s hometown of Beaufort, African Americans outnumbered whites seven to one.14 In an uneventful campaign, Smalls defeated Independent nominee J. P. M. Epping—a white man who ran on a “reform” platform opposing the Radical Republican state government—with nearly 80 percent of the vote. Smalls received a position on the Agriculture Committee in his freshman term, a key assignment for his farming constituency and thus a boost to his efforts to prepare for the potentially formidable opposition to his re–election.
Despite the Democratic majority, Smalls’s first term was one of his most active and fruitful. For his coastal constituents, he obtained appropriations to improve the Port Royal Harbor that passed with little debate, owing to a letter from the Secretary of War presented as evidence.15 Smalls also sought other internal improvements, including compensation from the federal government for its use of Charleston’s military academy, the Citadel, since 1865.16
Smalls spoke openly in defense of his race and his party. In June 1876, he attempted unsuccessfully to add an antidiscrimination amendment to an army reorganization bill. His amendment, which would have integrated army regiments, required that race would no longer affect soldiers’ placement. The following month, Smalls addressed a bill to redeploy federal troops in the South to patrol the Texas–Mexican border. Smalls argued against transferring federal troops stationed in his home state, warning that private Red Shirt militias—South Carolina’s version of the Ku Klux Klan—would make war on the government and freedmen. Advocates of the troop transfer argued that the corrupt Republican government in South Carolina brought on the violence and that it remained a state issue. Smalls disagreed, noting that the federal presence would help “cut off that rotten part all round South Carolina so as to let the core stand. It is those rotten parts which are troubling us. We are getting along all right ourselves.”17
While touring the state with Republican Governor Daniel Chamberlain during the 1876 campaign, Smalls attended a rally in Edgefield, South Carolina, where Red Shirt leader and former Confederate General Matthew Butler overran the meeting and threatened Smalls’s life. Though the Republican entourage escaped unharmed, a sympathetic observer noted the ease with which Butler and his Red Shirts moved through the town: “Even in Mexico Gen. Butler’s command could only be regarded as a revolutionary army, but in South Carolina they are called ‘reformers.’” Smalls’s opponent, George D. Tillman, who hailed from a prominent Democratic family, exacerbated tensions. The New York Times referred to Tillman as a “Democratic tiger, violent in his treatment of Republicans, incendiary in his language, and advising all sorts of illegal measures to restrain Republicans from voting.” During the campaign, Smalls described Tillman as “the personification of red–shirt Democracy” and the “arch enemy of my race.”18 Despite heading the militia to break up a strike in the middle of the campaign, Smalls escaped the Democratic tsunami that swept South Carolina local elections, barely defeating Tillman with 52 percent (19,954 votes).19 Polling places were spared much of the Red Shirt violence, primarily because Governor Chamberlain requested federal troops to stand guard.20 Tillman later contested the military presence, hoping a Democratic Congress would rule in his favor. Defending himself in the final session of the 44th Congress, Smalls called Election Day in South Carolina “a carnival of bloodshed and violence.”21
Smalls arrived in Washington for the 45th Congress (1877–1879) to receive his position on the Committee on the Militia and face Tillman’s challenge to his election; however, he was unable to get to work. The following July, the Democratic South Carolina state government charged Smalls with accepting a $5,000 bribe while chairing the printing committee in the state senate. Smalls arrived in Columbia on October 6, 1877, to face trial. On November 26, he was convicted and sentenced to a three–year prison term. Republican newspapers cried foul, accusing Democrats of targeting the “hero of the Planter” because of his success as a black Representative.22 After three days in jail, Smalls was released pending his appeal with the state supreme court. He returned to Washington to face Tillman’s contested election challenge before the Democratically controlled Committee on Elections. Though the committee ruled in Tillman’s favor, just before the end of the second session on June 20, 1878, Smalls retained his seat because the whole House never considered the findings. Though his triumph over Tillman was a symbolic victory for House Republicans, Smalls’s preoccupation with his criminal case and the defense of his seat left him little time to legislate during the short third session.
Smalls’s chances in the 1878 election were slim. South Carolina black politicians faced a deadly threat from the white supremacist–controlled government. Sea Island observer Laura Towne noted in her diary: “Political times are simply frightful. Men are shot at, hounded down, trapped and held til certain meetings are over and intimidated in every possible way.”23 The final blow to Smalls’s campaign was his unresolved conviction, which Tillman—who returned as his opponent—used to defeat him. Though Smalls received a majority of the black votes in the district, the small number who braved the fierce intimidation were unable to prevent the Democratic sweep.24 Tillman took 26,409 votes (71 percent) compared to Smalls’s 10,664 votes (29 percent).25
An 1879 resolution to his criminal case allowed Smalls to concentrate on returning to politics. Although the state supreme court rejected his appeal, Democratic Governor William Simpson pardoned him on April 29, 1879—acting on assurances from the U.S. District Attorney that charges would be dropped against South Carolinians accused of violating election laws in 1878.26 Smalls, nevertheless, remained optimistic about Republican politics in South Carolina. “Robert S. is very cheerful, and says that the outrageous bulldozing and cheating in this last election is the best thing that could have happened for the Republican Party,” observed Laura Towne, “for it has been so barefaced and open that it cannot be denied.”27 Smalls still controlled the Beaufort Republican Party, and he remained popular among the town’s substantial black population. By 1880, Smalls resolved to take back his seat from Tillman. However, his allegiance to the Republican Party made it increasingly difficult for Smalls to rally black voters to his side. Issues that wedded black voters to the GOP—primarily fears of returning to slavery—were fading in light of black disenchantment with local Republican corruption scandals. The state party also was in chaos, as the South Carolina Republican convention was unable to nominate a state ticket. Smalls’s attachment to the disorganized and disgraced state party proved to be the strongest point of attack for Democratic opponents. Red Shirt intimidation, which had become routine in recent elections, complicated matters.28
Smalls failed to defeat Tillman in a violent campaign, garnering only 15,287 votes, or 40 percent; however, he contested the election, hoping to capitalize on the slim Republican majority in the 47th Congress (1881–1883). His case came before the Committee on Elections on July 18, 1882. Using Edgefield, South Carolina, as a case study, Smalls won the support of the committee by testifying that his supporters had been frightened away from the polls.29 In an attempt to prevent Smalls from taking the seat, House Democrats sought to avoid a quorum by deserting the House Chamber when his case came to a vote on July 19, 1882. Their plan backfired, however, as the House seated him, 141 to 1 with 144 abstentions.30 Smalls returned to his appointments on the Agriculture and Militia committees. While his victory was yet another blow to southern Democrats, the curtailed term again left him little time to legislate.
By 1882, South Carolina Democrats had gerry–mandered the state so that only one district retained any hope of electing a black candidate. The new district’s lines demonstrated the legislature’s intent; completely ignoring county lines, the district contained one–quarter of the state’s substantial black population (82 percent of the district’s population was black).31 Smalls sought the nomination but was opposed at the Republican convention by longtime black politician Samuel Lee and Smalls’s congressional friend and ally Representative Edmund Mackey. Smalls deferred to Mackey—a sympathetic white man whose wife was mulatto—to maintain unity in the party. However, Mackey died suddenly on January 28, 1884, shortly after defeating Lee—who ran as an Independent candidate—in the general election. Lee had taken a federal patronage position in Alabama, leaving Smalls the best chance at the seat. He won a special election without opposition and took his oath of office on March 18, 1884.32 Smalls resumed his position on the Committee on the Militia and received an appointment to the Committee on Manufactures.
Smalls continued earlier attempts to secure federal debt relief for South Carolinians who lost their property due to nonpayment of wartime taxes, justifying the relief by pointing to the free services and the welcome federal soldiers had received in places like Port Royal; however, the House rejected his proposal.33 Smalls was more successful with a bill regulating the manufacture and sale of liquor in the District of Columbia. He offered an amendment that would guarantee the integration of restaurants and other eating facilities in the nation’s capital. After parliamentary debate about the germaneness of the amendment, it was added to the bill, which passed the House though it died in the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia.34 In the 1884 election, Smalls’s victory over Democrat William Elliott was unexpectedly easy. Though both candidates expected a violent campaign, the election was relatively quiet, with Sea Island blacks coming out to support their favorite son. Smalls was appointed to the Committee on War Claims in the 49th Congress (1885–1887), made up of a safe Democratic majority. Encouraged by his recent victory, black state senators nominated Smalls for an open seat in the U.S. Senate in December 1884. Although he lost to Democratic Governor Wade Hampton, 31 to 3, his nomination was a symbolic protest of white supremacy.35
In his first full term since he was a freshman, Smalls gave one of the more impassioned speeches of his career, asking Congress to approve a $50 per month pension for Maria Hunter, the widow of General David Hunter. Hunter was one of the first white Union commanders to raise African–American regiments in the Civil War and was known for issuing an order to free slaves in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. But, Hunter was also controversial for his slash–and–burn strategy during several Shenandoah Valley campaigns, as well as for his inattention to defendants’ rights in the trial of conspirators in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Democrats argued against permitting the pension. Smalls admonished his colleagues: “Can it be that there is a secret or sinister motive either personal or political? … Can it be that this is your revenge for all his patriotic conduct?”36 Though the private bill passed both the House and Senate, President Grover Cleveland vetoed the measure, claiming the Widow Hunter’s case was best handled by the Pensions Bureau. Smalls also steered through the House a bill that allowed for the redemption of school farmlands outside Beaufort that had been owned by the federal government since the Civil War.37 He also submitted a resolution requesting relief funds after a flood in 1886 destroyed crops and homes in his district. The House refused to appropriate funds, despite Smalls’s appeal that the state government would not furnish relief money until late in the year. Smalls also failed in a bid to make Port Royal a coaling station for the U.S. Navy.38
Smalls faced a challenge from within his own party for re–election in 1886. African–American rival Henry Thompson attempted to capitalize on the growing competition within the black community between dark–skinned blacks and mulattos. Thompson’s radical position proved less of a threat for the nomination; however, black voters divided in the general election, with the “darker delegation” voting against Smalls.39 The split in the black vote made Smalls vulnerable to Democratic attack. “Elections,” Smalls lamented to the Washington Post, “are all in the hands of Democrats.”40 His foe, Democrat William Elliott, returned to defeat him with 56 percent of the vote in an election in which black disfranchisement was routine.41 Smalls contested his loss. Despite more than 800 pages of testimony and support from powerful Republican Representatives Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, a House weary of handling the South’s racial problems declined to seat Smalls, with a vote of 142 to 127 on February 13, 1889.42 Accepting the inevitability of his loss, Smalls had already stepped aside to allow a younger politician, Thomas Miller, to run for his seat in 1888.
Smalls remained an active and popular politician, managing to win the chairmanship of the Republican state convention in 1890.43Although he was favored for the post of sheriff in Beaufort County, Smalls made another bid for the U.S. Senate, but he received only one vote from the state legislature.44 He also attempted to return to the House in 1892 but lost a four–way race for the Republican nomination, which Representative George W. Murray secured en route to a general election victory. After his wife Hannah died in 1883, Smalls married Annie Wigg on April 9, 1890. They had one son, William Robert, in 1892, before Annie’s death in 1895.Smalls benefited throughout this period from GOP patronage. In 1889, Republican President Benjamin Harrison appointed him the collector at the port of Beaufort. He held the post until Republicans lost the White House in 1892. Smalls regained the appointment in 1898 from Republican President William McKinley. Over time, his duties as collector became more onerous in the face of racism and segregation in Beaufort. He was forced to step down in 1913 after the White House again transferred to a Democrat. Smalls died of natural causes in his Beaufort home on February 22, 1915.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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