Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and His Families

by Andrew Billingsley

From the publisher
On May 13, 1862, the enslaved African American Robert Smalls (1839-1915) commandeered a Confederate warship, the Planter, from Charleston harbor and piloted the vessel to cheering seamen of the Union blockade, thus securing his place in the annals of Civil War heroics. Slave, pilot, businessman, statesman, U.S. congressman - Smalls played many roles en route to becoming an American icon, but none of his accomplishments was a solo effort. Sociologist Andrew Billingsley offers the first biography of Smalls to assess the influence of his families - black and white, past and present - on his life and enduring legend. In so doing, Billingsley creates a compelling mosaic of evolving black-white social relations in the American South as exemplified by this famous figure and his descendants.

Born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls was raised with his master's family and grew up amid an odd balance of privilege and bondage. His distinctive situation instilled in him both an understanding of and desire for freedom. Billingsley underscores the influence of the slaveholders' household as well as Smalls's biological family on the development of the passions and abilities that led Smalls to his bid for freedom in 1862. Likewise, Billingsley charts the critical involvement of Smalls's wife, Hannah, and his extended family of black crewmates in the success of that plan.

Smalls served with distinction in the Union forces at the helm of the Planter. After the war he returned to Beaufort and bought the home of his former masters - a house that remained at the center of the Smalls family for a century. A founder of the South Carolina Republican Party, Smalls was elected as a delegate to the black majority 1868 Constitutional Convention, which confirmed the right of black men to vote, as well as to the overwhelmingly white Constitutional Convention of 1895, which took away that right. Between those two events, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, the state senate, and five times to the U.S. Congress. Throughout the trials and triumphs of his public service, Smalls was surrounded by an ever-growing family of supporters. Billingsley illustrates how this support system, coupled with Smalls's dogged resilience, empowered him for political success.

Today three branches of the Smalls family remain: the descendants of his daughter with first wife, Hannah; of Hannah's two daughters from a previous marriage whom Smalls adopted; and of his son with his second wife, Annie. Writing of subsequent generations of Smalls's family, Billingsley delineates the evolving patterns of opportunity, challenge, and change that have been the hallmarks of the African American experience thanks in no small part to the selfless investments in freedom and family made by Robert Smalls of South Carolina.