This week is a full-time, writing-intensive drive to finish the draft of "The Road to Frogmore." While I'm busy with that, I'll be posting a 5-part story of a South Carolina slave who played a crucial role in the Civil War. Robert Smalls is not a major character in any of my South Carolina books, but he appears in every one of them.
The Story of Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls had an unusual upbringing for a slave. As the son of a much-favored black kitchen-slave and a never-identified white man, little Robert soon became something of a family pet of the Henry McKee family of Beaufort. He grew up in their household, played with their children, and shared their lessons, even though it was illegal to teach a slave to read in South Carolina.
His mother, Lydia, worried that her son would grow up not realizing that in the eyes of the law he was still a slave. Because she wanted him to understand the meaning of slavery, she used to take him down to the Arsenal on Saturday mornings and force him to witness the public slave beatings that took place there. When he became a bit older, she sent him to live for a time with the field slaves on the McKee’s Ashland Plantation.
“I’m not gonna hoe cotton for a living, Mama. Why do I have to go live out there?”
“I wants you to understan’ how mos’ black folk be livin’ der lives,” she told him. “Massa McKee ain’t always gonna be ‘round to protects you, and when you not under his wing, you jis’ be ‘nother slave to mos’ folks. You needs to learn to survive on de plantation, and you needs to feel a few blisters on yo’ hands. Den if’n you hasta live dat life fo’ real, you be gonna know how to survive.”
In the end, Robert did not stay at Ashland long enough to see his blisters turn into calluses, but he saw enough to convince him that he never wanted to earn his living as a cotton slave. Instead, he appealed to Henry McKee to help him find a job on a boat. The young mulatto slave worked on ships in Charleston Harbor from the time he was twelve. In many ways, Lydia Smalls’ fears for her son were justified. He came to understand the evils of slavery all too well, but he would always have trouble applying the slave label to himself. He knew he was different, and he chose to emphasize that difference. He grew up to be willful and headstrong, firmly believing that he could have whatever he wanted. It was a dangerous attitude for any young man, let alone a South Carolina slave.