A conscious and aware enslaved person will use any means to get their freedom, and generally will show immense gratitude and contribute a life’s service after having liberated themselves from bondage. Observe the case of Mr. Robert Smalls. Born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1839, Smalls was quite unique in his ability to travel and work in the city of Charleston as he was hired out at the age of 12 as a lamplighter. He loved the sea, and eventually began working as a dockworker, rigger, and sailmaker in order to be closer to it. In this capacity, he became acquainted with the ships themselves, and was eventually to become a ship’s pilot.
After the Civil War broke out, Smalls found himself piloting Confederate Navy vessels through Charleston Harbor. He was assigned to the CSS Planter, a military transport ship. On May 12, 1862, the white officers went ashore to spend the night, leaving Smalls and other enslaved crewmen on board overnight. Smalls put on the captain’s hat and put into action his plan for liberty.
Stopping at a prearranged wharf to pick up his and the crewmen’s families, Smalls hoisted a white bedsheet as a flag of surrender and piloted the Planter to the U.S. Navy blockade of the harbor. He surrendered the ship to the Navy along with its valuable weaponry intended for a new Confederate fort, codebooks, and other materials.
Smalls gave detailed information regarding the defenses around Charleston Harbor to the commanding admiral of the blockade, and became a hero in the North. He was paid $1,500 for his work ($35,000 in 2016 dollars) and met with President Lincoln. His heroic efforts became a key argument for allowing black soldiers into the Union Army. Smalls went on to serve with distinction in the United States Navy throughout the duration of the war.
After the War, Smalls remained an active citizen by participating in politics, serving as a Congressman, and also engaging himself in business dealings. He became a partial owner in a black-owned railroad line and bought his former owner’s house, where he let his old and ailing mistress live until her death. Smalls died in 1915 from malaria, leaving behind several children and a legacy of service to the Black nation and to the people as a whole.