Robert Smalls’ 180th birthday is this week – April 5th.
He was born enslaved (though the importation of persons for slavery had been prohibited since 1808) in a small building, called a dependency, behind his owner’s home.
Lots of people were born in 1839– some famous (John Rockefeller, George Custer, Caroline Ingalls, Paul Cezanne) and millions unknown. As a child, Robert lived in the small building where he was born, and worked in the owner’s yard and barn, and occasionally played with the owner’s children – until they were old enough to go to school. He, of course, was prohibited from school.
At the age of 12, he was “hired out” in Charleston, meaning he worked and his wages were sent back to his owner. He worked in a restaurant, and as a street lamp lighter and eventually on the docks – loading boats, mending sails, and learning the work of a “wheelman.” A wheelman was a pilot, but slaves were not given the distinction of being called the pilot of the boat.
He was enslaved on a cotton steamer called the Planter that became a Confederate gunboat; to put it plainly, he was forced to labor to protect the very institution that kept him enslaved. And he decided enough was enough. It was time to pursue a life of freedom.
With nerves of steel and unimaginable courage, Robert Smalls risked everything – his own life, and the lives of the woman and children he loved, as well as his enslaved crewmates – to become free. He and his crewmates commandeered the Planter and attempted an escape through Charleston Harbor.
There’s so much more. The man changed millions of lives. Including mine. Robert Smalls was a leader, a hero, and an inspiration.
Happy birthday, Captain!