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Smalls

This episode is dedicated to my sister Cas. Even though she’ll never hear it lol.

The content below is the script/notes of Season 2 Episode 16 of the Who’d a Thunk it? Podcast.

Recommendation Segment

  • This episode’s recommendation segment is loosely connected to the main topic. I strongly recommend you check out music from The Notorious BIG, also known as Biggie Smalls.
    • **Warning** His music is seldom ok for kids to listen to and I like to keep this podcast clean as possible. You have been warned. Biggie’s art is quite explicit.
    • But I am a huge Biggie Smalls fan and have been ever since my little chubby legs were dangling from my car seat in the back of my families big green van. My mom would put on Biggie’s music when my sister and I were toddlers.
    • My favorite album is Ready to Die. I listened to that album on repeat during Two-A-Day football practice weeks in high school.
  • MAJOR SIDE NOTE
    • I WAS going to do this recommendation segment about how I only have 3 tattoos right now and 1 of them is a Biggie Smalls quote. It is the tattoo I got with my sister at the same time. It is on both of our left biceps….
    • I was going to write how proud I was of the tattoo and show you how big of a biggie fan I was that I got his words tattooed on my body.
    • But when I went to look up which song the quote came from I found it was from “I’m with Whateva,” and the lyric I got as a tattoo is from a verse sung by a different artist…. let that sink in.
    • That Lyric that I have tattooed on my body with the initial “BIG” next to it was actually rapped by Lil Wayne.
    • Lil Wayne was just a feature on the song whereas Biggie got the main artist credit. So when Cas and I saw all these quotes online saying Biggie was quoted saying “If you don’t love yourself I’ll make you see your own heart.” Those people were actually mistaken. If you listen to the song, Lil Wayne is the one who actually said it…
      • I am NOT a Lil Wayne fan.
      • But, c’est la vie.
      • It is still a cool quote. I actually find it hilarious and a good representation of my sister and I’s sibling relationship.

Captain Robert Smalls

Now for our main story about Captain Robert Smalls. This is another historical episode. I hope you enjoy!

  • BIRTH OF A LEGEND
    • Robert Smalls was born in to slavery in 1839 in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, Lydia Polite, was a house servant on the plantation she was enslaved to. She gave birth to Robert in the cabin behind their slave owners house.
    • As Robert grew he became a favorite amongst the slave owners due to his intellect and charm.
    • Being sold off and separated from her family at the age of 7, Robert’s mom was no stranger to horrors of slavery. Lydia saw that her son was being treated more kindly than most other slaves on their plantation. Fearing he would grow up naïve of his owner’s cruelty, Lydia requested her son work out in the fields so he could witness the brutal whippings of his people.
      • Lydia’s intended message was received. Robert led the rest of his life fully aware of the darkness of the society he lived in.
    • By the age of 12 Robert began to act out. After being arrested for the heinous crime of being in public past 7PM with his friends, Lydia decided it was best to “lease” her son to the dockyards in Charleston.
      • Saying all things like “his owners” and “leased out her son” feels so wrong. I, like everyone in American public schools, was educated on American slavery, so it shouldn’t be a shock. But it is. It feels wrong even saying those things. But it was the reality back then.
    • Smalls did hard labor for years rigging ships and receiving a pitiful fraction of the pay of his white co-workers. The bulk of Robert’s pay went to his new master. Robert received only $1 a week. That comes out to about $34 dollars a week in today’s economy.
    • While working on the docks Robert found he had a love for the sea. He worked as a longshoreman, a rigger, a sail maker, and eventually worked his way up to become a wheelman, more or less a helmsman (basically a boat pilot), though slaves were not permitted that title. Through his hard work, Robert Smalls was able to become quite familiar with the Charleston Harbor. Knowing it like the back of his hand.
    • When he was 17 he married an enslaved hotel maid named Hannah Jones. They settled down, had 2 kids and went on with their lives… until war broke out.
  • CIVIL WAR
    • When the Civil War broke out in 1861 with the Battle of Fort Sumter. It was so close to home for Smalls that he could probably hear the cannon fire from his apartment.
    • His skills as a seaman didn’t go unnoticed. He was immediately pressed into service about the CSS Planter, a converted cotton steamer that was now working as a supply ship ferrying food, ammo, and other supplies from the Charlestown docks to the various forts that defended the harbor. 
  • Now Smalls was fighting in the American Civil War, but Charleston South Carolina wasn’t part of the Union North. When he was forced to work as the Wheelman of the CSS Planter, it was for the Confederacy. The side that, if they were victorious, would continue to keep Smalls and his family enslaved… And remember Robert Smalls wasn’t dumb. He was smart as a tack, charming, and the images of his fellow slaves being whipped in the fields was forever burned in to his mind.
    • For 9 months Smalls piloted the CSS Planter around Charleston harbor. He made mental notes about troop placements, currents, tides, and, most importantly, signals and codes sent between the ship and the forts that dotted the harbor. He also noticed his enslaver captain and crew were sloppy and underestimated him.
    • Every time he left shore he told his wife Hannah to have a go-bag ready incase they needed to flee the area.
  • On May 16th 1862, after a long days work ferrying supplies all over the harbor, the white captain and crew of the CSS Planter stopped the boat near a small island and after midnight told his men to camp out to catch some sleep.
    • Smalls stayed on the boat with the 7 other slaves and as soon as their slavers were asleep on the island, Smalls, like a total boss, stole the boat!
      • Keep in mind, steamboats are loud. Their charcoal boilers make quite the ruckus, but somehow Smalls got away.
    • He and the 7 other slaves high-tailed it back to Charlestown where they scooped their families. The now 17 escape slaves loaded 6 cannons on the CSS Planter on Smalls’ orders.
      • He planned to sneak or charm his way past the numerous Confederate checkpoints and forts, but if it came to it, Smalls wanted to be prepared to fight to the death rather than fall victim to slavery again.
      • Smalls stationed a man in the boiler of the ship and ordered him to blow the ship to Kingdom-come if it looked like they were going to be captured.
      • It seemed all those aboard the CSS Planter agreed they were either going to make it to freedom, or die free that very night.
      • One could imagine the Confederates weren’t too forgiving to mutineer slaves if they were caught.
    • Smalls remembered the signals necessary to seem an ally to each Confederate sentry. He donned the captains uniform (using the large hat to hide his face). Thankfully most sentries didn’t think twice when Robert spoke with them as they had seen him pilot the boat through the harbor many times before.
    • When it came to the final checkpoint, Fort Sumter, Smalls knew this largest checkpoint would be the most trouble. His crewmates tried to convince him to pilot the CSS Planter in a wide route around the fort, but Smalls knew that would seem suspicious.
      • He chose to bravely steer the ship in a direct line to the Union Blockade. Luckily it worked.
    • Robert Smalls captained an enemy ship past 5 Confederate Checkpoints with 17 slaves on board. He steered to freedom using nothing but his intelligence and boldfaced confidence.
    • When the Confederate troops finally realized what was going on it was too late. Alarms were sounded and ships were set in pursuit, but all was in vein. Smalls and crew made it to Union held territory.
      • Union forces almost opened fired on the CSS Planter, but thankfully Smalls’ wife had packed a white bed sheet. Quick thinking on Smalls part led to the sheet being hoisted to signal surrender to the Northern Forces.
    • Making national news in the north, Smalls was an instant hero for freeing 17 slaves and bringing a 6 cannon warship over to the North.
      • He went on to speak with Lincoln and convince him to allow African Americans to fight for the Union.
      • He briefly went on a tour of the North recruiting African American men to the fight (he was credited for recruiting 5,000 men).
    • But Robert Smalls wasn’t a man to sit back while a war was being fought. A year after he commandeered the CSS Planter away from the Confederates he joined the Union army and eventually took over as Captian of his own ship….. the USS Planter.
      • Commissioned as an officer in the United States military, Robert Smalls participated in 17 naval military actions in and around Charleston Harbor between 1863 and 1865.  He piloted a US Navy Ironclad, the USS Keokuk, during the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1863, and earned a commendation for bravery at the Battle of Folly Creek in June while piloting the Planter – the ship’s captain got a little shell-shocked from the heavy fire the ship was taking and ran to hide in the boiler room, so Smalls took over active command and helped his crew fight off the enemy attack.  He was promoted to captain, earned a salary of $150 a month (making him among the highest-paid black soldiers of the Civil War), and watched proudly from the deck of the Planter when Charleston surrendered to the Union in April 1865.
      • This living legend showed up to battles as the official captain of the ship he stole from his enemies…. that is jaw dropping historical fact.
      • I am in awe of this man’s story.
      • After the war, Robert Smalls was appointed Brigadier General of the South Carolina militia, and he took his wife and kids back home to Beaufort where he bought the house he was born in.
        • Smalls allowed his former owners to stay on his land and live among his family.
  • He was elected first to the South Carolina State Senate, then was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1874 after winning 80% of the vote from his district.
  • In 1877, the Former Representative that Smalls beat for his seat in the House planned to scandalize General Smalls out of office. The claims were that Smalls had taken bribes.
    • He was sent to court in Charleston, given a joke trial, convicted, and sentenced to three years in jail, but only ended up serving two days before the Governor of South Carolina pardoned him. The Governor knew the charges brought against Smalls were bogus. 
    • Apparently Congress agreed with the Governor because Smalls didn’t even lose his seat in the House over it — he just walked out of jail and went right back to the House of Representatives. 
    • He went on to serve three more terms in Congress, where he worked to desegregate the military, restaurants, and railroads, fought for debt relief for Southern families who had lost their homes and property during the War, battled for voting rights for black people, and fought against the KKK whenever he got the chance
    • In 1912, at the age of 73, General Robert Smalls stopped a lynch mob from hanging an African American boy in the street near his home. He walked right up to the mob, address its leader, and threatened to rally every black person in Charleston to burn the entire city to the ground if they didn’t let the boy go free. THAT is power used for good.
    • Smalls ended up serving 5 terms in Congress.
    • He died at his home in 1915 at the age of 75.  His home is now a national landmark. Numerous schools in South Carolina bare his name. And in 2004 he became the first African-American to have a US warship named after him – the support ship USAV Major General Robert Smalls.
    • The story of Robert Smalls blew me away when I first read it. But after reading his story again for this episode I can’t help but notice it all seemed to have started with his mom. She recognized his potential and steered him to where he could have a chance.
  • Thanks for listening Who’d a Thunkers! I hope you enjoyed.
    • MAJOR shout out to one of my favorite history blogs “Badass of the Week.”
    • I discovered Robert Smalls’ story on this blog and I borrowed a lot of material from their post about Smalls.

CREDIT

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