Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5, 1839 and worked as a house slave until the age of 12. At that point his owner, John K. McKee, sent him to Charleston to work as a waiter, ship rigger, and sailor, with all earnings going to McKee. This arrangement continued until Smalls was 18 when he negotiated to keep all but $15 of his monthly pay, a deal which allowed Smalls to begin saving money. The savings that he accumulated were later used to purchase his wife and daughter from their owner for a sum of $800. Their son was born a few years later.
In 1861 Smalls was hired as a deckhand on the Confederate transport steamer Planter captained by General Roswell Ripley, the commander of the Second Military District of South Carolina. The Planter was assigned the job of delivering armaments to the Confederate forts. On May 13, 1862, the crew of the Planter went ashore for the evening, leaving Smalls to guard the ship and its contents. Smalls loaded the ship with his wife, children and 12 other slaves from the city and sailed it to the area of the harbor where Union ships had formed their blockade. This trip led the ship past five forts, all of which required the correct whistle signal to indicate they were a Confederate ship. Smalls eventually presented the Planter before Onward, a Union blockade ship and raised the white flag of surrender. He later turned over all charts, a Confederate naval code book, and armaments, as well as the Planter itself, over to the Union Navy.
Smalls’s feat is partly credited with persuading a reluctant President Abraham Lincoln to now consider allowing African Americans into the Union Army. Smalls went on a speaking tour across the North to describe the episode and to recruit black soldiers for the war effort. By late 1863 he returned to the war zone to pilot the Planter, now a Union war vessel. In December 1863 he was promoted to Captain of the vessel, becoming the first African American to hold that rank in the history of the United States Navy.
After the Civil War Smalls entered politics as a Republican. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and later to the South Carolina Senate. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives first from South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District and later from South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. Smalls served in Congress between 1868 and 1889.
When his last term ended Smalls moved back to Beaufort, South Carolina to become the United States Collector of Customs. He also purchased and resided in the house in which he had once been a slave. Robert Smalls died in Beaufort on February 22, 1915 and is buried there with his family.
Black Firsts Quiz - Part 1
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10 Questions Regarding the First Accomplishments of Black Americans
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Question 1 of 10
What was the first newspaper owned and operated by African-Americans?Correct
Freedom Journal; the first African-American owned and operated newspaper published in the United States. It was based in New York City. Founded on this day (March 16, 1827; the first issue).
Question 2 of 10
What was the first college owned and operated by African-Americans?Correct
Founded in 1856, Wilberforce can trace its orgins to a period before the Civil War. Wilberforce University is a private, coed liberal arts historically black university (HBCU) located in Wilberforce, Ohio. The University is named to honor the the abolitionist, William Wilberforce. He was a leader in the movement to stop the slave trade. Wilberforce worked for 26 years to get the Slave Act of 1807 passed in England.Incorrect
Question 3 of 10
Who was the first African-American to vote in an election in the United States?Correct
Due to the passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1870 ), Thomas Peterson of New Jersey cast a vote.Incorrect
Question 4 of 10
Who was the first African-American commissioned officer of the United States Military?Correct
Henry Ossian Flipper (March 21, 1856 – May 3, 1940); Flipper was the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.Incorrect
Question 5 of 10
The First African-American to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard University.Correct
Question 6 of 10
First African-American to be invited to dine at the White House?Correct
Booker T. Washington, “Up From Slavery”Incorrect
Question 7 of 10
Who was the First African-American heavyweight boxing champion?Correct
Jack Johnson, the first African American and first Texan to win the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, was born the second of six children to Henry and Tiny Johnson in Galveston on March 31, 1878…read moreIncorrect
Question 8 of 10
Who was the first African-American to win an Olympic Gold Medal?Correct
John Baxter Taylor, Jr. competed at the 1908 summer Olympics in London. He ran the third leg in the men’s 1600 meter relay.Incorrect
Question 9 of 10
Who was the firs African-American woman millionaire?Correct
Question 10 of 10
Who was the first African-American to be appointed a justice to the United States Supreme court?Correct
On June 13, 1967, President Johnson nominated Marshall to the Supreme Court. In a 69-11 vote on August 30, 1967, Marshall became the 96th justice and first African-American of the United States Supreme Court…read moreIncorrect
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Okon Edet Uya, From Slavery to Public Service, Robert Smalls 1839-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); Dorothy Sterling, Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls (New York: Pocket Books, 1978); Edward A. Miller, Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995); http://www.robertsmalls.org/