A dramatic backstory helped to launch Robert Smalls’s congressional career in the 1870s. A century later, the daring ship captain and Civil War hero’s story reappeared in the public eye as the subject of a volume of Golden Legacy, a comic book format Black history series for children. Smalls’s activism during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era—from protesting discrimination on public transportation to arguing for equal treatment by law enforcement—made the Reconstruction Era Representative’s story fresh and compelling during the 20th century Civil Rights Era.
The pioneering Golden Legacy graphic history series was the creation of Bertram A. Fitzgerald, a New York accountant, who came up with the idea for the series, and expanded the historical canon. At the time, the notion of Black history was nowhere near mainstream, but academics and the public had begun to explore the past using new methods focusing on the experiences of everyday and overlooked people. Recalling how little Black history was taught during his schooldays as a Black student, he remembered feeling “left out and excluded. . . . Maybe we don’t have anything to contribute.” He vividly recalled that two lines about Crispus Attucks, whose death in the 1770 Boston Massacre made him a martyr of the American Revolution, were the only mention of a Black person in the entirety of his school history textbook. Learning later about the historical contributions of Black people felt “like an elixir," Fitzgerald said. “Like a shot in the arm. It made the Constitution true for me.” Though he keenly felt the lack of representation from his own perspective as a Black student, Fitzgerald believed that more inclusive history was essential for all students. He believed that “it’s every bit as important for white children to learn about Benjamin Banneker as it is for black children to learn about Benjamin Franklin.” Omitting the historical contribution of Black people “deprives white students and it also misleads them” to conclude “that they made every worthwhile contribution to society.”
To help remedy this problem for subsequent generations of students, Fitzgerald came up with the concept of the Golden Legacy biography series. Beginning in 1966, the Golden Legacy graphic series told young readers the stories of remarkable Black people throughout history, issuing three sets of magazines, and a total of 16 volumes. Fitzgerald chose the colorful, graphically oriented style because it “takes the drudgery out of history and replaces it with excitement and adventure. It sort of puts a breath of life into it.”
Smalls’s eventful and adventuresome life made him an ideal subject for the series. This graphic depiction of his biography—the ninth installment of the series, published in 1970—describes his adventures and follows a narrative arc, beginning in his childhood. A conversation with his mother in the opening pages resonates throughout the story. When the young Smalls states some of his aspirations for when he is “a man,” his mother asserts that he is “never going to be a man! A man is free! You’re a slave!” Smalls was born enslaved in Beaufort, South Carolina. As a youth, he moved to the Charleston home of the family that enslaved him, where he was hired out to work in a variety of trades, including waterfront lamplighter, stevedore foreman, sailmaker, rigger, and sailor. During this time, he became an expert navigator of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. This extended depiction helped young readers connect with his early years, and set up the comic’s themes of Smalls’s pursuit of freedom, love of the sea, and hard-working nature.
The first heroic turn in Smalls’s Golden Legacy story comes during the Civil War. The Confederate Army conscripted Smalls to serve on the Planter, an ammunition transport ship. On May 13, 1862, Smalls and the Black crew raced the Planter past Confederate guns at Fort Sumter to freedom and turned the ship over to the United States Navy. This daring action made him a war hero and northern celebrity. After his escape, Smalls lobbied the military to enlist Black soldiers and piloted ships in the familiar waters of the South Carolina Sea Islands.
The Golden Legacy retelling of Smalls’s life includes not only his wartime exploits but also his early fights for civil rights. While fighting for the United States, Smalls instigated one of the first mass boycotts of segregated public transportation, after being kicked off an all-white streetcar in Philadelphia in 1864. In the comic book, Smalls’s postwar career in government—starting with his role in South Carolina’s constitutional convention, election to state government, and later the U.S. House of Representatives—follows naturally from his advocacy for Black rights. The narrative intersperses the political context of white supremacist violence with Smalls’s accomplishments as a lawmaker. Smalls’s long career in the House working for equality and civil rights is juxtaposed alongside Congress’s waning interest in Reconstruction and the related rise in violence against Black citizens in the South.
Golden Legacy imagines Smalls’s many strenuous arguments for civil rights, creating a visual shorthand for his vociferous defense of his constituents. One panel shows snippets like “the laws that are being passed now are as bad as the old ‘black codes’!” and “when a black man is accused of a crime, he’s always found guilty!” The final panel’s statement that “the boy, born as a slave, had lived and died a free and whole man!” harkens back to his mother’s declaration on the first pages.
Colorful illustrations, an emphasis on narrative, and liberal use of exclamation marks set the Golden Legacy version of Representative Robert Smalls’s biography apart in endeavoring to bring Black history to a wider audience. The Golden Legacy was also unique in its creator’s approach to distribution. Fitzgerald sought out corporate sponsorship, successfully engaging Coca-Cola, Exxon and other large corporations. This arrangement sent the magazine to schools and libraries across the country, enabling the superhero style of Golden Legacy to bring the high drama of Representative Smalls’s extraordinary life to a new generation of students amidst the continued struggle for civil rights in the 20th century.
Sources: New York Times, 17 February 1974, 31 January 1993; Maren Williams, “A Legacy of Innovation and Commitment to Representation,” Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, 28 February 2019, http://cbldf.org/2019/02/a-legacy-of-innovation-and-commitment-to-representation/.Follow @USHouseHistory