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[00:00:00]

Hi, it's Phoebe. Before we start, I have a quick favor to ask. We're conducting our annual listener survey and we'd be grateful if you would take just a moment to answer some questions about how we're doing. Visit survey dot org slash criminal. You can also answer questions about the other radio topia podcasts you listen to and your input will really help us out. Visit, survey pirogues criminal. Thanks very much. Here's the show. Robert was was born and enslaved person in eighteen a n in Buford, South Carolina.

[00:00:40]

He was born to a mother who was a domestic for their master and their family was born in a little shack behind the big house, so to speak. He was born on a day that there was a hanging going on and enslaved person was being executed and the whole town left. And so his mother, who was in her mid 40s when she gave birth, delivered on the floor of this shack by herself. And I've always kind of just thought about that.

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I can't imagine giving birth in eighteen thirty nine in your mid forties by yourself on the floor, but such as how Robert came into this world.

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His mother's name was Lydia Polite. She was born enslaved and worked in the home of a man named John McKee. She helped raise his seven children, including his youngest son, Henry. When John McKee died, Henry McKee inherited Lydia polite, and when she gave birth to her son, Robert Smalls, Henry McKee claimed him as property, too. And what's your relationship to Robert Smalls?

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I am Robert's great great grandson. I had the real fortune of growing up with Robert's granddaughter. My grandmother was his granddaughter. Of course.

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This is Michael Boulware. More what I think broadly about the civil war.

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That's that's kind of an abstract kind of a thing. It was so long ago. But when I think about Robert Smalls, I think about sort of history that connects to him. It's a much more tangible kind of a thing because we've had these really long generations. And and so the history is much more tangible and accessible for me.

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Michael, where more says that Robert Smalls, his upbringing was somewhat unusual. He and his mother worked in Henry McKee's huge house on Prince Street in Buford, South Carolina, and lived in a small shack behind it.

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Robert Smalls was able to stay with his mother much longer than many enslaved children were. Slavery obviously was a business.

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And at the first opportunity that a young child could be put to work in any kind of a meaningful way, they were taken from their mother and put to work. But Robert, because he lived with his mother as a domestic, had an opportunity to grow up with her and to receive the benefit of her love and nurturing.

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You know, by all accounts, she was obviously was very smart, precocious.

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She often got in trouble because he he bucked against the rules for enslaved people.

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As the story goes, he was very distraught, for example, at the fact that he could not go to school, that he couldn't be taught to read and write when in the evening when the whistle or the bell was sounded as a curfew for enslaved people, he often rebelled against going in on that and often found himself getting into trouble. But he was young. He was he was precocious. He had an opportunity to taste freedom or at least to observe it from afar.

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Freedom in a way that that the vast majority of enslaved people couldn't, and that always, I believe, stuck in his mind. When Robert Smalls was 12 years old, Henry McKee sent him to work in Charleston, about 50 miles from his mother in Buford. In 1850, one year before Robert arrived, nearly half of the population of Charleston was made up of enslaved men, women and children and had been one of the primary ports for the transatlantic slave trade.

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When Robert Smalls first arrived in Charleston, he worked as a waiter at a fancy hotel and then as a lamplighter, next as a stevedore, loading and unloading cargo from ships.

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Henry McKee took almost all the money Robert earned, he let Robert keep a small portion for himself. When Robert Smalls was 17, Henry McKee gave him permission to get married. He married an enslaved woman named Hannah Jones and had my great grandmother, Elizabeth, his first child, his first daughter.

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And so that really the family peace really drove a lot of his motivations and his thinking, as it does for all young parents, certainly.

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But I think for him, the idea that his family could be taken from him, could be sold away at any moment was something that really vexed him, that really bothered him in a in a very dramatic kind of a way. And he had freedom on his mind. He wanted to figure out a way to protect his family. The first thing he did, actually, was he went and negotiated with his wife's master to buy their freedom.

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A man named Samuel Kingman owned Hannah and her child with Robert, their daughter Elizabeth Samuel Kingman told Robert that he would be willing to sell him, his wife and their daughter for eight hundred dollars.

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When Robert worked on the on the docks, he actually was able to keep, I don't know, like a dollar or a week or something, sending the rest of his wages down to his master and Buford. And with that money, he bought various tobacco, candy, fruit, and he sold that on the docks. And he was actually quite, quite good, quite entrepreneurial. And he actually put down a hundred dollar down payment on the life of his his family.

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I think that he was able to save every penny he ever made, selling various things on the docks and collected that hundred dollars and put the down payment down.

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They knew it would take years to save enough. And even if they did raise the money, Robert himself was still enslaved by Henry McKee back in Buford. And then Hannah and Robert had their second child, a son they named Robert Jr., and they thought Samuel Kingman would increase the price beyond reach. That was in February of 1861. The next month in March of 1861, Abraham Lincoln took office. And in April, Confederate soldiers fired the first shots of the civil war, firing at Fort Sumter, a union held C fort just off the coast of Charleston.

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By June, Henry McKee had sent Robert Smalls to work on a Confederate ship. 150 foot side wheel steamship called the planter. It was one of the newest and fastest ships in the area. He started as a deckhand. Then he was promoted to what was called a wheelmen, meaning he navigated the sandbars and shallow water of Charleston Harbor. The planter had a crew of 10 three white Confederate officers, the captain first mate and engineer. The rest of the crew were enslaved men.

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The white officers weren't supposed to leave the ship, they were supposed to sleep on board, but Robert Smalls noticed that they'd come and go, often staying away overnight, the enslaved crew members had to stay behind on the ship. One night, someone put the captain's hat on Robert Smalls head as a joke, and that was the moment when he first wondered if he could impersonate the captain, take command of the Confederate ship he was forced to work on and get his wife and children out of there for good.

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I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal.

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You know, in our family, we sort of the oral history tradition goes down that Hannah actually went to Robert and and and, you know, they discussed this and Robert said, look, this is it's dangerous. I don't know if I'm going to make it. Why don't I just go ahead and take the plan or to freedom and then I'll come back for you. I'll come back and get you.

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And she said, no, where you go, I go where you die. I die. And they made the pact to to to go at this together. Robert Smalls held a secret meeting with the other enslaved crew members, they agreed to join and help him. They wanted to free their families, too. Everything was planned out very carefully.

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On May 12th, 1862, the crew of the planter had just finished a long stint, a very demanding work. Robert Small suspected that the white officers would be eager to leave the ship for the night.

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And as afternoon turned into evening, it appeared he was right. The Confederate captain, first mate, an engineer, all left the ship.

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As things were falling into place, two of the deckhands decided the risk was too high and they didn't want to go anymore. Robert Smalls told them they could leave and he hoped that they wouldn't say anything to anyone. Hanna Smalls arrived to the planter with her daughter, an infant son. It wasn't uncommon for the wives of enslaved crew members to come visit the ships in the evenings, but they had to be home before curfew or risk being caught and punished by slave patrols.

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The families of the other crew members began to arrive, too, and Robert outlined the plan for everyone.

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They had made the decision that if something happened and they were caught, they they were going to kill themselves. They lined the bottom of the boat with dynamite. And, you know, they they made that decision that it was either going to be freedom or it was going to be death for them. Around three a.m. on May 13th, the crew began adding wood to the fires and had to wait for the boilers to get hot enough to produce steam. Finally, it was time to go.

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The crew raised the ship's flags, first the Confederate flag and then the state flag of South Carolina.

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And then Robert took command of the ship and he donned the straw top hat that the Confederate captain of the planter used to wear and this long overcoat, he had studied the gate of the Confederate captain and he sailed out and he he knew all of the pass codes that he had to execute with the whistle to get by. I think there were five forts there and sailed out.

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They sailed past Confederate Guard boats, guard stations and forts. They had to move at a slow pace so that nothing would appear out of the ordinary. One of the planters engineers, an enslaved man named Alfred Gordin, later said, I was taken so weak that I could hardly stand.

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He remembered that everyone on board was terrified except for Robert Smalls.

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If he lost his nerve for a single minute, no one noticed it, he said.

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At one point, Robert Smalls was said to have saluted a passing boat with a whistle. Another time, as they passed a towboat, he yelled out to its captain something about the fog. Gordin remembered that Robert Smalls kept the steamer right on its course, and when they passed the Confederate stronghold Fort Sumter, Robert Smalls saluted it with a whistle and then added an extra one quote as a farewell to the Confederacy. As Robert Smalls navigated the planter out of the Port of Charleston, he thought that if he could continue impersonating the ship's captain until they were out of range of the Confederate cannons, they might be safe.

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He knew that there was a fleet of Union ships further out in the waters off Charleston, and he planned to approach them and ask for help once he believed he was beyond the range.

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He veered south to this union blockade and he started sailing toward the USS Oneword, which was the lead boat in the federal blockade there outside the mouth. And one of the Robert was very careful, knew all the details and planned everything, except there was one detail that he had forgotten. And here it is. At this point, it was probably, I don't know, maybe four or five o'clock in the morning.

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Maybe the sun was just starting or the early light was just starting to peek over the horizon. And here is this large, one of the largest boats in the harbor with this enormous Confederate flag sailing toward the USS Onward to the federal blockade. And so obviously, that could have created quite a problem. But luckily, Robert's wife, Hannah, my great great grandmother, had thought to sew together some white sheets. And so they quickly lowered the Confederate flag, raised the white flag of surrender as they approached the US as onward and as they approached the onward.

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The story as the stories go, the union, the military folks who were manning the the onward there were just in amazement. As you know, this large boat comes with this crew of black people. You know, the general conception of what black people could do was extraordinarily limited. You know what's let's remember that a narrative had to be created for this country to do the things that it did to enslave people. The narrative was that they were less than human, that they were not intelligent, that they were beasts, that they were vile and aggressive, all these kinds of things.

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And so, you know, at this point, here is this. Enormous Confederate boat coming with this crew of enslaved people, it just, you know, it shocked not only the the officers and the the folks from the union there, but it made enormous news up and down the East Coast and they were free.

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Robert Smalls reportedly said to the captain of the N-word, I'm delivering this war material, including these cannons, I think Uncle Abraham Lincoln can put them to good use. I've often thought, like as they were stepping off the planter and onto the oneword, just what must they have felt to me mean? It was common. I'm sure every enslaved person in the country dreamed at one point or another being free. But how many actually had the opportunity to actually do something about that?

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And Robert, you know, he had the audacity really to to do this and and he was free. And again, I mean, just what they must have felt as they stepped their first steps of freedom onto this union boat. It just must have been incredible.

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You won't be surprised that that the story was received differently in the north than it was in the south. In the north. It was really the story was was was enormous news.

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It was great news. It was joyous. This Robert was taken to the north and there were parades and huge celebrations for him up and down the east coast, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston. And he was really received as a as a hero. He was one of the first real heroes of the civil war. Obviously, in the south, there was a little bit of a different reception. There was a bounty put on his head. He was persona non grata.

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He had really embarrassed the Confederacy because, again, the conception was was that, you know, enslaved people, black people were akin to beasts of burden in terms of their ability to think strategically and to, you know, just to execute sort of high level kinds of reasoning and thinking and planning. And so Robert really called all of that into question. A few months later, Robert Smalls traveled to Washington and met with President Lincoln in person. The story of what Robert Smalls had done is partly credited with persuading President Lincoln to allow African-Americans to enlist in the Union Army.

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And Robert Smalls went back to South Carolina to serve as a naval pilot.

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He had this unique ability to envision realities for himself, to think about things, to dream about things, to actually make those things happen for himself, but then to extend those things to his family and then to fight for others to do that. And so he did that. In this instance, he actually went back into the crucible of the war, back into the the heart of things, and and worked with the the union as the pilot of this boat, a planter, the same vessel that he used to to free himself.

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And so he moved back to to the low country here of South Carolina. And and to make a long story short, Robert became the first African-American to command a United States naval vessel as a result of some heroics that he he executed there fighting for the union during the civil war.

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That must have been I mean, the fact that he had to sail this ship that he had once been forced to work on.

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Now, as as the commander of it, I can't imagine the thought of that.

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Yeah, I think there was a real poetry to it, to be honest. I mean. He did. Spectacular things, and it was at a time when there was a lot to be done, and so he he stepped up and and did a lot. Robert Smalls bought the house on Prince Street in Buford, where he and his mother had once been enslaved, and so he lived there.

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He and Hannah, my great great grandmother and others live there. And after the Civil War, the wife of his former master came to the house. She was both physically and mentally ill and she thought she was going home. She thought she was going to go to her house. She's old and infirmed. And Robert. You could have responded in a number of different ways, you know, this was the woman who had owned him as a piece of property who had, you know, defined his life as a piece of chattel and in so many different ways.

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But yet he embraced her and brought her in and cared for her.

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And even though, for example, she wouldn't eat at the table with them, you know, just cared for her, allowed her to live.

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And so to me, that that story just touches me because, you know, you could have slammed the door on her face, literally and figuratively, and he didn't. The civil war began its end on April 9th, 1865, when union soldiers entered Charleston, the first soldiers to arrive were African-American. Many of them have been forced to work in the city earlier in their lives, and now they'd returned to liberated. The period known as Reconstruction attempted to bring the southern states back into the union and attempted to correct the inequities of slavery when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, the reconstruction effort was left in the hands of Vice President Andrew Johnson, who'd said white men alone must manage the South.

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Robert Smalls became active in politics. He wrote legislation to create the first public school system for the state of South Carolina, which is often said to be the first free, compulsory statewide public school system in the country. He was elected to the South Carolina House and Senate and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served numerous terms.

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By 1877, about 2000 African-American men had held public office in former Confederate States.

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Over the decades to come, the state governments dialed back the rights and freedoms African-Americans had been granted during reconstruction. Jim Crow laws legalize segregation. Confederate monuments began to be installed across the country, not just in the South. And Robert Smalls watch as opportunities for equality were taken away one after another. I think about just the the struggles that he must have experienced as reconstruction was dying, as we were going back to a period where African-Americans, black people had little to no rights, you know, were stripped of their ability to vote, to participate in in society in a meaningful way.

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And, you know, he had been out there as one of the major personalities, the major really warriors around justice throughout his life. And so I can only imagine that he must have been just completely disheartened.

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There are quotes of his from one of the last constitutional conventions, I think the last one that he participated in that actually put the Jim Crow laws into effect and sort of recast society back as sort of a white supremacist, sort of a mold.

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And, you know, he he's one of the quotes that he said was, my race needs no special defense for the past. History of them in this nation leads everyone to believe that they can compete with anyone anywhere. All they need is equal chance in the battle of life.

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That line is engraved on a statue of Robert Smalls that sits in the cemetery of the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Buford, he's buried there and a marker describes how he liberated himself and his family on May 13th, 1862.

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Is May 13th a special day for your family? That is a great question, because for me, I always acknowledge it as my personal Independence Day.

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Of course, July 4th is a national independence day.

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And and and, you know, look, I think as an African-American, one could always question the relevance of that day because, you know, on July 4th, 1776, or, you know, that the relevance of that Independence Day, you know, it really didn't have any relevance for people of African descent who were enslaved.

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Frederick Douglass has an amazing speech about that day. But for for my family, May 13th. Yeah, it is our Independence Day.

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It is the day when you know that we commemorate when Robert, you know, sort of pulled this plan together and and executed it with with boldness, with with aplomb, with audacity and and won his freedom.

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So, yeah, that's a it's a very important day.

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You know, you know, as white people like me think about history and think about what stories are celebrated and taught in school, stories of bravery, stories of fighting for your independence and what stories you aren't taught. You know, I'm struck that I've never heard of Robert Smalls, a man who really accomplished what seems to be just such a such a big feat. I agree.

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I mean, I always I grew up outside of Boston and I got a very New England centric view of history, pretty much that if it didn't happen north of, say, Washington, D.C., it really wasn't important. And of course, that's ridiculous.

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But I also as I got older, I came to realize that history is less of a literal recitation of what happened and much more of a tool of sort of social. Construction, it's history is, you know, they say is told by the victor, and I think that's that's true.

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I mean, Robert, first of all, he was persona non grata, as mentioned in the south. And so even here in Charleston, South Carolina, in the city where he started his historical sort of career, let's say his story is still somewhat muted.

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And, of course, someone like Paul Revere we learn about so often.

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And I remember as a young child thinking, yeah, well, you know, that was cool what he did. That was cool. But that wasn't like, you know, what Robert Smalls did, you know?

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So and again, obviously I couldn't be more biased, but yeah, I think it's an amazing story. It's an amazing American story.

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If if we can be broad enough to consider that African-American history is, in fact, American history, then this is among the best of them, in my view.

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Is created by Lauren S'pore and me Neede Wilson as our senior producer, Susanna Robertson is our assistant producer, audio mix by Rob Byers, special thanks to Matt Majak.

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Julie Alexander makes original illustrations for each episode of Criminal. You can see them at this is criminal dotcom. We're on Facebook and Twitter at criminal show. Criminal is recorded in the studios of North Carolina Public Radio WNYC, where a proud member of Radio Topia from Prick's, a collection of the best podcasts around. I'm Phoebe Judge. This is criminal. Radio to topiary your ex.