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In presenting information about The War Between the States, most history books recount specific battles, laud great generals, and discuss major political events of the era. While such information is certainly important to our study of this tragic time of schism, learning more about the contributions of lesser-known heroes certainly enhances our understanding. Robert Smalls is one such lesser-known hero, and this paper will detail his humble beginnings as well as his rise to prominence in South Carolina politics.
Born to a slave named Lydia on the fifth of April in 1939, Robert was so named by his mother’s master, John McKee. His father’s identity was unknown, or at least unacknowledged, though his descendants insist that Smalls was the son of the man who named him. One biographer suggests that regardless of whether John McKee indeed sired the future hero, "there is no doubt that he (Small’s father) was white".
Slaves did not typically bear surnames, as that might strengthen family connections among the chattel. The ruling whites often discouraged or even forbade such connections, preferring to limit the slave’s identity to property-status. As a youth working on the waterfront, Robert was sometimes called “Small Robert” because of his short stature. He eventually reversed the name order and added an “s” to the latter name, dubbing himself “Robert Smalls”.
Smalls’ mother was “one of McKee’s ‘Swonga people’, as house servants were called in the Gullah dialect spoken by the local black population”. Due to Lydia’s relatively high status among the slaves, Robert did not experience the hardships many others endured. He was never forced to perform backbreaking work in the fields, for example, or to suffer the indignities and beatings often visited upon other slaves in dissimilar venues. His mother had been a field worker earlier in life, however, and she took her son to witness slave auctions, beatings, and other maltreatment so that he would have empathy and compassion for his people.
Robert was “hired out” to work in Charleston, South Carolina, away from the McKee home when he was just twelve years of age. All wages he earned as a waiter and lamplighter were turned over to his master, now Henry McKee. The younger McKee had inherited Lydia and her son upon the death of his father, John (“The Maritime Underground Railroad”). Astute and assertive at a young age, Smalls negotiated an arrangement with Henry McKee when he was just eighteen. Under that agreement, the young slave could work where he wished and keep all income in excess of the fifteen dollars per month he was to pay his new master. Such independence was certainly not enjoyed by most slaves of the time, and Smalls enjoyed his relative freedom. He worked as a stevedore, a sail maker, and a sailor as his skill and knowledge of maritime matters grew.