Good Trouble in the Fight for Freedom

Robert Smalls was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1839. His mother was a house slave and took care of Robert, as well as the slaveholder’s children. He was able to learn basic reading and writing skills. His mother helped ensure that he saw the dark side of slavery because his own life wasn’t like that of other slaves.

Robert was able to learn a number of skills associated with the shipping industry. When the Civil War began, Robert was assigned duties in support of the South. He had earned the trust of his ship owners. He and other African Americans on the ship escaped to the Union blockade where it was captured. Robert was just 23 when he undertook this daring act.

After repairs, the boat was put into service by the Union, and Robert was made its pilot.  Robert continued to serve in the Union Navy. He provided invaluable intelligence on the Confederate military that he gained while serving on Confederate ships.

When the Civil War was over, Robert returned to South Carolina. He was able to buy his master’s home when his master refused to pay taxes on it He then purchased another building to be used as a school for African American children.

Robert decided he could be more influential as an elected representative of his people. He was first elected to the South Carolina Legislature and later to the U.S. House of Representatives. His advocacy for education continued when he sponsored legislation creating the first free and compulsory public school system in the U.S.

Robert passed away at the age of 75 from malaria and diabetes. Many of the gains he had made for African Americans were being eroded toward the end of his life as Jim Crow politics began its reign in the South.

Just imagine how the life of Robert Smalls personifies the five things that Congressman John Lewis has taught us about creating good trouble:

  • Vote, always
  • Never too young to make a difference
  • Speak truth to power
  • Become a racial equity broker
  • Never give up

He made a difference by acting for what he believed in even when such action could have led to his death.

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            “This man, Robert Smalls, is superior to any who has yet into our lines, intelligent as many of them have been. His information has been most interesting, and portions of it of utmost importance.” – Admiral Samuel DuPont in speaking with the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

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