Robert Smalls (1839–1915)
was an enslaved African American who, during and after the American Civil War, became a ship’s pilot, sea captain, and politician. He freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, the CSS Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailing it to freedom beyond the Federal blockade.
He was born in Beaufort, South Carolina. After the American Civil War, he became a politician, elected to the South Carolina State legislature and the United States House of Representatives. His example and persuasion helped convince President Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.
As a politician, Smalls authored state legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States, and founded the Republican Party of South Carolina. He is notable as the last Republican to represent South Carolina’s 5th congressional district until 2010. South Carolina passed a new constitution in 1895 that effectively disfranchised African-American citizens for more than half a century. After regaining the ability to vote in 1965 with the aid of national Democrats, African Americans in the state have generally voted for that party since the late twentieth century.