Civil War hero Robert Smalls seized the opportunity to be free
February 15, 2013 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Robert Smalls sat at the conference table next to Frederick Douglass as they tried to convince President Abraham Lincoln that African Americans should be allowed to fight for their own freedom. He served five terms in Congress. He ran a newspaper and helped found a state Republican Party.
But first, he had to win his freedom.
posted by Blasdelb (14 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Jordan Peele, your Academy Award is calling.
posted by Etrigan at 4:17 PM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm fond of the story of Robert Blake. To the best of my knowledge, he's the only sailor classified as contraband to recieve the Medal of Honor.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:42 PM on February 15, 2013

Smalls was born in Beaufort, S.C., on April 5, 1839, the son of Lydia Polite, a slave who was a housekeeper in the city home of John McKee

An odd detail: Does anybody know anything about surnames for slaves? How did she get a name like "Lydia Polite"? I assume she was polite, but is this how last names were given out? Slaves didn't have last names, right? Were they given last names based on personal characteristics?
posted by twoleftfeet at 4:48 PM on February 15, 2013

Thanks for posting this. Cool that they arranged to pick up their families. It was mentioned on a PBS documentary and I had wondered if the escapees' immediate relatives had suffered any repercussions.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:18 PM on February 15, 2013

I'd never heard this story. I love Black History Month. :P Thanks for posting this.
posted by shoesietart at 6:53 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love this story, it's awesome in so many ways. Thanks for sharing!
posted by Vindaloo at 9:19 PM on February 15, 2013

twoleftfeet: There has been much debate among scholars, historians and genealogists whether enslaved African Americans used the surnames of their last owners, previous owners, or a surname that had no connection to slavery.

I think the answer is that practices varied widely and there is no one definitive answer. For the most part, many slaves had no need of a surname since they had little contact with the world of contracts and other instruments for which they were needed. In certain cases slaves had jobs, like Smalls, outside of a plantation or household context, which would necessitate one.

Anyway, I'd heard this story before but hadn't known of his role with Douglass and Lincoln, so that was interesting. The story itself is thrilling and how wonderful that it's a narrative where black American slaves are their own heroes saving themselves instead of objects being freed by some white protagonist.
posted by dhartung at 11:03 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

“Mrs. McKee, after the war was over, came wandering to the house one day,” Moore said. “Because of her dementia, she didn’t realize the house was no longer hers. . . . Given her illness, Robert allowed her to stay.”
In addition to being brave and resourceful, he was apparently a compassionate human being as well.
posted by Harald74 at 11:44 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Fascinating story, billyfleetwood's link flushed it out even more.

great stuff (and certainly movie worthy!).
posted by el io at 2:13 AM on February 16, 2013

Trailer for the documentary on him.
posted by el io at 2:20 AM on February 16, 2013

Found out about Smalls about a month or so ago. Dude is my new hero.

I'm amazed that there's no movie about him, though I realize full well they'd just f*ck it up.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 5:33 AM on February 16, 2013

How have I never heard of this guy? That's just fantastic.
posted by Uppity Pigeon #2 at 11:07 AM on February 16, 2013

I've been aware of Smalls for a few years, since I started working in Beaufort County, SC. (I may be the only mefite working in this county.) I've always read his mother's name as sounding like Politay, Italian, or something Latin. According to one white pages source there are at least a hundred people in SC with that last name.
posted by mareli at 12:02 PM on February 18, 2013

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