Robert Smalls secured his own freedom

Image by Brady Handy

“It was really dangerous because they were flying the Confederate flag. They made a decision that they wouldn’t be taken alive. . . . If they had been caught, they were going to ignite the explosives and die on the ship.” - Helen Moore, Smalls' great-granddaughter 

As our nation pays tribute to the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, it seems fitting to call attention to those who preceded Dr. King in the struggle to abolish racism in the United States. Robert Smalls, a Beaufort, S.C. native, is undoubtedly found atop that list. 

Smalls was born into slavery in Beaufort in 1839. At age 12, he was sent to Charleston, where he gained the traning and skills necessary to be an effective ship-crew member.

Smalls procured a position on the USS Planter as a 22-year-old, eventually earning himself the title, "Captain." The next year, as the Civil War was already underway and the Confederate Party deemed the Planter an armed transport vessel, Smalls did the unthinkable: With the help of his fellow crew members, he stole the ship and sailed his way to freedom.