On February 23, 1915 the Honorable Robert Smalls died on the front porch of his home, the house on Prince Street behind which he’d been born enslaved.
Trouble the Water was inspired by Smalls’ extraordinary life, and I hope the book honors his spirit and his character.
An early manuscript of Trouble the Water included an epilogue, in which I imagined the funeral service, the eulogy, the homegoing of the great man.
In honor of Robert Smalls, I’m sharing that here today:
After the choir of the First African Baptist Church sang, Rev. Carr stood in front of the congregation and addressed the crowd. He didn’t need to preface his remarks, or even say the name Smalls. He simply, and proudly, described the man he’d known for almost 20 years.
“His was a life of challenge, and opportunity. His was a heart of courage, and compassion. His was a journey of adventure, and a love of home. My friends, today we remember and give thanks for the life of this great man. Born just around the corner there, born behind the house which has been his home for fifty years, born a slave boy, he died a man. A free man. A great man.
“Here lived a man whose life changed our own lives, every one of them. Here lived a man who whose bravery and generosity secured his own freedom, and then empowered ours too. Here was a man who always chose to choose! — a man who knew tribulation but chose hope, who knew trouble but chose peace, who knew cruelty but chose compassion. He chose courage in the face of fear, he chose mercy over malice, and he always chose to serve community before serving his own self-interests.
“Some have tried to limit his influence, but it has taken root. Some will try to diminish his heroism, but it will only grow. Some will attempt to erase his legacy, but it lives on!
“He fought the good fight — for the right to learn, the right to serve, the right to vote, the right to choose.
“Here was a man whose name never fit — for he was never small! He never participated in pettiness, he never traded in trivial matters, he never made himself out to be greater than any other man, and he never pretended to be less than the fine man that he was. His name never fit, for he was never small.
“Robert Smalls fought for his freedom, and ours. He fought for our right to work, to own our homes, and farms, and businesses. He fought for education for us and for our children. He fought for our future. He was born into a world of trouble, but he was a man of hope.”
Ever grateful for the life and legacy of Robert Smalls, April 5, 1839 – February 23, 1915