Sunday, July 13, 2008

Robert Smalls a South Carolina Hero

Black History and American history is not as simple as you might have it. It often isn't the case of racists whites doing unthinkable things, and blacks being the victims. Of course that is a major theme, but the reality is much more complex. When you read the histories of great men like
Robert Smalls you have to know that for him to exist many white people had to agree either to help him or at the least leave him alone to prosper:

By Marshall Swanson
In the early morning hours of May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls, a 23-year-old Civil War-era slave, commandeered a Confederate ship, the Planter, in Charleston harbor, and sailed it with other members of the slave crew to freedom past five heavily fortified checkpoints before turning it over to the Union Navy.


Before he died at age 76 in 1915, Smalls had become a noted community leader, businessman, and entrepreneur; a founder of the Republican Party in South Carolina; a major general in the state militia; a member of both houses of South Carolina's Legislature; a five-term U.S. Congressman; and a delegate to the 1868 and 1895 state Constitutional Conventions.


His achievements were all the more remarkable because at the time of his electrifying escape from slavery, Smalls could not read or write. He later achieved literacy by hiring a personal tutor.
"Smalls certainly was the most famous black political leader during Reconstruction in South Carolina, and his capture of the Planter made him a national hero during the Civil War," said Andrew Billingsley, a professor of sociology and African American Studies at the University who authored a 2007 biography of Smalls, Yearning to Breathe Free, Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families (University of South Carolina Press).


After the Civil War, Smalls became a leader in the state's then black majority that helped usher in what Billingsley refers to as "biracial political democracy" for the first time in the state's 200-year history.
Though Reconstruction lasted only 10 years and was a turbulent period, the era is remembered for several landmark political achievements. Among them was creation of the highly regarded 1868 state constitution, establishment of a system of free compulsory public schools for black and white students, and the reopening of the University of South Carolina to whites and blacks, making it one of the first state universities in the South open to both races after the war.
In 1895 the state's Democratic leaders overturned the 1868 constitution and replaced it with another one that essentially dissolved black voting and other rights. But a motion at the 1895 convention backed by Smalls calling for creation of a college for blacks was passed and resulted in the founding of S.C. State University in 1896.


Smalls did not allow personal defeats to keep him from trying again," he said. "He was a model of determination in his political career whose most important contribution to the state was his leadership in education."
Smalls established a school in Beaufort for newly freed black students and became superintendent of education for the county school system, noteworthy achievements for somebody who started out as an untutored man, said Billingsley. "But he was bright, aggressive, and after the war, wealthy, so he had a lot of influence in the realm of education.


Overall his accomplishments dwarfed that of the majority of whites. Whereas he learned how to read and became wealthy, the vast majority of the population grew up, lived, and died in their same place both physically, and socio-economically. Americans need to think how is it that in the late 1800's, even though it was only for a ten year period, blacks consituted the majority of the elected members of the state legislature in South Carolina. I'm sure their power was limited, and ultimately extinguished, but nonetheless it existed and contradicts the simple storylines of history.

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