o.k., robert smalls bio doesn't start off with what you'd think was pure luck as he was born into slavery. but, about midway through, his life starts to get awesome!!
he was born april 5, 1839 in beaufort, s.c. he was born at 511 prince st. he worked in the master's house at 512 prince st. when he was old enough. his mother lydia had been raised in low country gullah culture. she was owned by john mckee.
in 1851, robert smalls went to charleston to work for henry mckee. he held several jobs such as street lamp lighter. he also worked at the charleston docks as a stevedore, rigger, sailmaker, and finally, as a wheelman. a wheelman is a position on a steamboat. someone likened it to the pilot. it really is not the same thing, however, slaves were not allowed to be pilots. so, in this case, perhaps robert smalls was qualified to hold the position of pilot. but, generally speaking, the pilot plots the course (harder than it sounds given some of the rivers had various obstacles) while the wheelman steers. often they will be at their positions at the same time. the pilot can steer, of course, but the wheelman can't always pilot.
if you read frederick douglass "narrative of a life", he explains in detail about holding public jobs while a slave. he was responsible for finding a job and sometimes, his master would take part of his pay (although he could have taken all of it, but in douglass's case he didn't). douglass's master didn't have really anything for him to do and this was a common practice. so, smalls could have been doing something similar. another thing is, these days, we think of slaves every second having someone standing over them. that really was not always the case. sometimes, they were able to travel around a bit (such as around charleston, in smalls' case). douglass talks about this as well.
christmas eve, 1856, smalls married hannah jones, a hotel maid. she was 14 years older than him. she already had a daughter. they had two children together. their daughter lydia elizabeth, was born in 1858. their son, robert, jr. (1861-1863) died in childhood.
in 1861, smalls became wheelman on the confederate ship, the planter. then, may 12, 1862 robert smalls freed himself from slavery. apparently, he knew in advance that the white officers were going ashore. he and the other slaves on board had arranged for their family members to meet them at a nearby dock. they backed out of the wharf at 3 a.m. on may 13th and made for the union barracade. the first ship he encountered, the uss onward, nearly fired upon the planter. (this was a pretty daring feat, btw, made possible partly due to the fact smalls had a captain's hat.)
fortunately for smalls and union forces (which, despite what most people think apparently needed all the help they could get because wait until you hear whatall was ON the planter), the planter was simply captured. what did it have on it? well, two guns, four artillery pieces, a lot of explosives, a code book, maps of the harbors. and it had smalls who provided a lot of information. he told admiral samuel dupont everything he knew about the harbor's defenses.
congress later passed a bill giving smalls and his crewmen the prize money for the planter. smalls received $1,500 (around $35,000 now). he met lincoln later in may 1862. smalls then went on to serve in the union navy until march 1863.
major-general david hunter told smalls and manfield french to convince lincoln and secretary of war edwin stanton to allow blacks to fight with the union forces in port royal. the 1st and 2nd south carolina volunteers, made up of 5,000 black volunteers.
april 7, 1863, smalls piloted the uss keokuk, a union ironclad, when it attacked ft. sumter. this attack failed. in december 1863, smalls became the first black captain of a u.s. vessel.
as for the planter, december 1, 1863, it was caught in the crossfire and captain nickerson, the ship's commander, decided to surrender. fearing he and the other blacks onboard would be shot, smalls took over and piloted to safety. here is where i say, there is something else going on with this story... some spy shit or whatever. i am sure smalls really did what he said he did, but someone else was making sure he succeeded. because he regularly seemed to get by, like, five forts unscathed. and get left on a ship alone with all kinds of valuable shit (hmmm...). there was hella double agent shit going on back in the day.... so i'm figuring that he was quite smart to not let himself be captured right here, all's i'm saying. due to again delivering a valuable ship to the union navy, smalls was allowed to be the commander of the planter.
after the war, smalls bought his master's old house and moved in... the master's wife was quite "confused" at the time (no fucking doubt, some hardcore stuff went down in charleston). so, she stayed until she died. she was pretty old anyway. smalls' mother also lived with his family.
in 1866, smalls and richard howell gleaves opened a store for freedmen. in april 1866, congress passed the civil rights act (over andrew johnson's veto) and ratified the 14th amendment. now able to vote, etc. smalls became a republican and urged his fellow blacks to "vote republican and thus bury the democratic party so deep that there will not be seen even a bubble from the spot where the burial took place." ( yes, republicans have always said stuff like that. although, the former slaves thought the republicans had freed them, so .... oh i don't know, republicans use dirty tactics, perhaps that will be another rant.)
smalls was a delegate to the RNC several times during the reconstruction (read: hellish martial law) era. he was in south carolina's house 1865-1870 and their senate 1871-1874. then he was in the u.s.'s 44th, 45th, 47th, and 49th congresses.
during consideration of a bill to reduce and restructure the u.s. army, smalls introduced an amendment that would make "no distinction" based on "race or color" upon enlistment. congress pretended not to hear him. if this sounds a little familiar, it did eventually pass. but not while smalls was around.
now to something called the compromise of 1877. this settled the 1876 presidential election so that hayes (republican) won. but, he had to remove troops occupying south carolina, florida, and louisana. he also had to put at least one southern democrat in a cabinet position. (hayes appointed david m. key of tennessee as postmaster general). another railroad was to be constructed to replace the one pretty well destroyed in the war. (hayes said fuck that and this didn't even begin to happen until 1930... it doesn't appear to be finished in 2010.) there was to be some sort of industrialization in the south (again, hayes feigned deafness, and this didn't get started until 1930.) this bullshit is what got everyone sick and tired of the republicans tactics and their "waving of the bloody shirt" and the democrats were eventually put in for a while to straighten out this mess.
somewhere along the line, smalls got accused of taking a bribe. charges were eventually dropped. i'm not sure if there was any truth to that or if it was politics as usual. and i wouldn't be surprised if it was by his own party, but i don't know.
smalls was appointed u.s. collector of customs and held this office from 1889-1911. he died february 23, 1915 at age 75.
he had served in south carolina's 5th and 7th districts in the u.s. house of representatives. he held office from march 1875 to march 1879 and july 1882 to march 1883 and march 1884 to march 1887. he is the last black person to have served for the 5th district. i don't know the demographics of that particular region, but when south carolina elects you, you STAY elected for a long period of time. i think strom thurmond was in the senate about 80 years, seriously. so, i guess what i am saying is perhaps only about four people have held that seat since him.
anyway, it's a little amazing that with only his wits and a captain's hat, smalls acccomplished all of this. but, i thought his story was interesting ... no matter what you make of it. :)