Robert Smalls Monument at Tabernacle Baptist Church
Backstory and Context
As a young man, Smalls was sent by his master to Charleston where he worked aboard many different vessels. While the money paid by ship owners went to Smalls' owner, he learned how to navigate the Charleston Harbor. This skills allowed for a better quality of life than most enslaved persons and also presented an opportunity during the Civil War.
On May 13, 1862, Smalls and other enslaved members of the crew set sail on the CSS Planter, while the white captain and crew were gone for the night. Smalls sailed the ship through the harbor to pick up friends and family at another dock. He wore the captain’s hat and used coded signals as he sailed through two Confederate checkpoints undetected. Once they had entered open seas, Smalls and his crew sailed a white flag and surrendered the ship to the Union fleet. Smalls, his crew, friends, and family all escaped to freedom.
Smalls then worked as one of the first African American pilots in the United States Navy. He then served as captain for the US Navy during the siege of Charleston from 1863 to 1865. Eventually, he ran for Congress and won the position in the United States House of Representatives. After working in Congress, he was appointed to be the Collector of Customs in Beaufort, SC. He stayed in that position for nearly 20 years.
Smalls eventually bought the house he was born into slavery in. He died in the same house on February 22, 1915. He is buried behind the Robert Smalls Monument at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina.
The text on the base of the monument reads: "My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people, anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."
2. Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. Which Slave Sailed Himself to Freedom?. PBS. Accessed September 20, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/which-slave-sailed-himself-to-freedom/.
3. "Robert Smalls, S.C. M.C. Born in Beaufort, SC, April 1839." PBS, Library of Congress, prints and photographs division, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/which-slave-sailed-himself-to-freedom/.
4. Island Packet, Historic Beaufort Foundation, https://www.islandpacket.com/news/local/community/beaufort-news/article33572919.html.
5. TripAdvisor User KLE2013. "Monument to Robert Smalls." Trip Advisor, Trip Advisor, March 2018, https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g54135-d13555814-Reviews-Robert_Smalls_Monument-Beaufort_South_Carolina.html#photos;aggregationId=&albumid=101&filter=7&ff=308128389.