To do that, he conceived a plan that struck a blow against the Confederacy so significant that he was heralded across the nation. Carrying out his mission required bravery, intelligence and precision timing — attributes that many whites at that time thought blacks didn’t possess.
Robert Smalls proved them wrong and changed history in the doing.
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Smalls was born in Beaufort, S.C., on April 5, 1839, the son of Lydia Polite, a slave who was a housekeeper in the city home of John McKee, owner of the Ashdale Plantation on Lady’s Island, one of the Sea Islands. Though he never knew the identity of his father, it was widely believed that Smalls was the progeny of McKee’s son, Henry.
“There was a distinctly fatherly relationship between [Henry McKee] and my great-grandfather,” said Helen Boulware Moore of Lakewood Ranch, Fla., who grew up hearing stories about Smalls from her grandmother, Elizabeth Lydia Smalls Bampfield, his daughter.
Growing up at the McKees’ place, Smalls played with both black and white children, ate food cooked in the kitchen where his mother worked and slept in a bed in a small house that was provided for her. Polite had been taken from her family on the island plantation at age 9 to work as a companion to the McKee children in Beaufort.
Because of his connection to Henry McKee, Smalls was allowed “to go places and do things others couldn’t do. That could cause problems with blacks . . . and could be a dangerous thing with whites, as well,” said Michael Allen of the National Park Service’s Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which runs through South Carolina.
The town of Beaufort maintained a 7 p.m. daily curfew for blacks, but on many occasions young Smalls ignored the bell and continued to play with white children. Several times, he was taken into custody. Henry McKee paid a fine to retrieve him, Moore said.
When he was 10, his mother sent him to the plantation to learn the reality of slave life. He came back defiant, not willing to comply, as she had hoped.
“He acted as if he could do what the white children did, and that frightened her,” Moore said. “She wanted to educate him about the whole issue of slavery to save his life.”
Worried that her son would suffer consequences for his bold behavior, Polite asked McKee to rent out Smalls at age 12 to work in nearby Charleston. Each week, he was given $1 of his wages; the rest went to the McKees. He supplemented his income by purchasing cheap candy and tobacco and reselling them.
At age 18, Smalls met Hannah Jones, an enslaved hotel worker who had two daughters. He sought permission to marry and live with her in an apartment in Charleston, Moore said.
“He was smart enough to know that at any moment, she and any children they had might be sold, so he asked her enslaver,” who agreed, Moore said.