From slave to Congressman, exhibit showcases SC man's accomplishments

Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The following is a story from 2012 that describes Smalls' life. The exhibit is no longer at the South Carolina State Museum.

It's the kind of story told by epic Hollywood films.  And it happened right here in South Carolina.

Right now, you can learn about the fascinating life of a former slave who captained a stolen ship through Confederate waters to his freedom and later represented his state on Capitol Hill.

"Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls" is now open at the South Carolina State Museum.

"It truly is an inspirational story," said Jeff Powley, Education Manager for the SC State Museum.

150 years ago, at 2:30 a.m. on a May morning, slave Robert Smalls sailed his family to freedom, endearing himself to the Union Army in the process.

Wearing the captain's coat and hat, Smalls boarded the SS Planter and sailed it out of Charleston harbor.

"Smalls had been working on this ship for years before he got his freedom," said Powley.  "The planter was a troop transport ship and a munitions transport ship.  And Robert Smalls' job was to supply the various (Confederate) forts and batteries all along Charleston harbor with food, munitions and guns."

By the light of a full moon, Smalls steered the ship past several Confederate-occupied forts as he left the harbor, including Fort Sumter. Because he worked on the Planter, Smalls knew the secret signals and whistles to get past the forts.

He had worked as a pilot on ships for years, determining the depth of the water.  Smalls owner hired him out to captains.

Flying a white flag, which was actually a bed sheet from a Charleston hotel, Smalls turned the Planter over to the Union Army.

"His wife was a chambermaid at a Charleston hotel," said Powley.  "And thinking ahead, she knew they were going to have to fly a white flag once they got past Fort Sumter."

Because of his knowledge of the Charleston harbor and Lowcountry Coast, Smalls provided valuable information to the Union.

"He met President Lincoln very shortly after his daring feat," said Powley.  "And because of his knowledge of the Lowcountry, he was then asked to become captain of the Planter when the Planter became a Union vessel."

After the war, Powley said Smalls returned to the Lowcountry, eventually buying the Beaufort home of his former master, Henry McKee. He was elected to the South Carolina State Legislature twice and represented the Beaufort area for five terms in Washington.

Among his accomplishments, establishing South Carolina's public school system and getting the US military to install a post at Parris Island.

"Some other states at the time had general public school systems," said Powley. "But the one in South Carolina was the first organized, systemized school system for black children and white children."

Smalls' efforts have come full circle now that his story is taught in all South Carolina schools as part of its standardized curriculum.

"In 2011, the South Carolina teachers department changed the standards a little bit," said Powley. "Now Robert  Smalls is included in all the education standards for third and eighth grade."

The exhibit includes photos, informational panels, a model of the Planter, furniture from his home, and letters he wrote while in Congress.

The State Museum is hosting a series of programs on the Smalls exhibit throughout September.  A Robert Smalls for Kids Day is September 22.  And on September 29, a Robert Smalls historian will give a presentation.

The State Museum is located on Gervais St. in Columbia.

Copyright 2012 WIS.  All rights reserved.