A US warship has been renamed to honor a Civil War hero with ties to the Navy, who escaped slavery by highjacking a steamship. He joined the Yankee navy, and eventually served 5 consecutive terms in Congress.
In 1839, Robert Smalls was born into slavery in South Carolina. He became a skilled sailor and was an expert navigator of southern coasts.
Conscripted in 1862 to serve as the pilot of the Confederate steamer Planter at Charleston, he executed a daring escape out of the heavily fortified Charleston harbor.
He carried with him his family, other enslaved people, and valuable military cargo onboard, and successfully surrendered Planter to the U.S. Navy. The then had a career as pilot for several ironclads, becoming the first African American in history to do so for the Navy, and he eventually returned to captain Planter after the war.
An ardent advocate for African Americans, Smalls led one of the first boycotts of segregated public transportation in 1864. This movement led to the city of Philadelphia integrating streetcars in 1867.
Beginning a political career, Smalls was appointed a brigadier general of the South Carolina militia, and from 1868 to 1874 he served in the South Carolina legislature. In 1874, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served for five terms, advocating for greater integration.
“The renaming of these assets is not about rewriting history, but to remove the focus on the parts of our history that don’t align with the tenets of this country, and instead allows us to highlight the events and people in history who may have been overlooked,” said Sect. of the Navy, Carlos Del Toro.
“Robert Smalls is a man who deserves a namesake ship and with this renaming, his story will continue to be retold and highlighted.”
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The Tichondaroga-class missile cruiser isn’t the first military vessel to bear Smalls’ name. In 2021, Karla Moore, the wife of Robert Smalls’ great-great-grandson, and her daughter got to ride on the Army transport vessel also named the Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls—christened in 2007 as the first vessel to be named after an African-American.
On March 16th, 2021, Moore and her daughter got to take a tour of the ship as it entered the harbor of Charleston where Smalls had escaped all those years ago.
“It’s profound for the ship to be in Charleston,” Karla Moore told the Post and Courier at the time. “This is the region where Robert Smalls was born and it was where he had a major impact on our state’s history.”
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