In the aftermath of a trivial controversy involving a rapper making less than profound statements edited in sound bytes, very few of us have even breached the surface of a much deeper social malady. While it is axiomatic to say that many Black Americans know very little of our history, White Americans know even less about theirs. What has been substituted for American history is a dark cocoon of false memories designed to induce a deep slumber of un-informed consent from a people with no desire to awaken from their comatose state of obedience to the 1%. They are sleep walkers that are very comfortable with the prospect of walking into the gridlocked traffic of the 21st century unaware of the inherent dangers of their ignorance.
Unfortunately, they are more than defiantly happy to dwell in their state of illusion, as they bathe in the dirty waters of a mirage that passes as our national mythology. Concurrent with this ignorance is a very sinister effort by many to rewrite the horrific legacy of American chattel slavery. I am not speaking of Kanye West. I am speaking of those authors and writers that seek to reshape the collective American memory around a revised narrative of gentle indentured black servitude to benevolent white plantation owners who were not cruel, but were just tragically misunderstood. To be sure, not every slave master was cruel to his slaves. Some were even paternal. But the effort to extrapolate these exceptions over the general horrors of chattel slavery, is utterly preposterous at best, and outright farcical at the very least.
The real stories of the struggles of enslaved Africans for their redemption is one of the most inspiring examples of the indomitable will of a people determined to be free. Their courageous stories prove that although metal maybe stronger than flesh, it is not stronger than spirit. Even in their darkest hours, they rebelled, they fought, they died, they organized, they planned, and they ran. They even hijacked ships belonging to the armies of their masters and sailed to freedom.
Robert Smalls was born a slave in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1829. At the age of 12, he was sent to Charleston, SC to work on the docks for the merchant planters, who then sent the wages that he earned to his master in Beaufort. Smith started off as a laborer, but turned his bondage into an opportunity to learn all he could about maritime navigation. He worked himself up from laborer to pilot. He sailed men and munitions up and down the state rivers for years. Although his wages were sent back to his master, his master allowed him to keep at least a dollar of those wages for himself. Smalls invested his funds into a burgeoning business, selling candy and tobacco on the docks to other pilots, crewmen and workers.
With the profits from this enterprise, he bought the freedom of his wife and children. For years he bided his time; learning, planning and scheming. On the Morning of May 13, 1862, Robert Smalls, his wife, and other enslaved families commandeered the CSS Planter in Charleston waters and sailed toward a Union blockade. On the prior evening, the crew and officers disembarked to spend the night ashore, leaving Smalls and company on board. Smalls guided the ship past five Confederate harbor forts by giving the correct signals at the appropriate checkpoints. Smalls was so adept at Confederate naval protocol that he copied his Captain’s mannerism all the way down to his straw hat that he wore on deck to fool Confederate onlookers on the forts.
Before the voyage, Smalls and the enslaved crew lined the hull of the ship with dynamite. If they were discovered, they planned to blow up the ship, killing themselves before allowing it to be recaptured, and themselves to be tortured and murdered. They were prepared to die beneath the waves. They conceded that death was indeed preferable to bondage. (see there Kilmonger didn’t come to this conclusion on his own….lol) At at about 4:30 a.m., Smalls sailed the ship past Fort Sumpter and headed straight for the Union Navy blockade while flying a white bed sheet as a surrender flag. As he reached union controlled waters, he surrendered the vessel to Union Captain John Frederick Nickels. Smalls later replaced the white bed sheet with a United States flag to show his allegiance to the union cause.
Upon the surrender of the CSS Planter to the Union Navy, Smalls provided the Union Navy with his Confederate captain’s code book containing the Confederate signals, a map of the mines and torpedoes that had been laid in the harbor, and extensive knowledge of the waterways and military configurations. He gave detailed intelligence about Charleston’s defenses to Union Admiral Samuel Dupont. Thanks to crucial intelligence provided by Smalls, Federal officers learned that Charleston’s defenses were mostly minimal with only a few thousand troops available to protect the area. As a result, they learned that the Coles Island fortifications on Charleston’s southern flank were without protection. This intelligence allowed Union forces to capture Coles Island without a fight approximately one week after Smalls’ escape.
The incredible heroism of Robert Smalls should be elementary education for those dedicated to the serious study of Black resistance to the dehumanizing institution of chattel slavery. His planning, calculations, bold and clever gamble helped turn the tide of southern resistance. It also shattered the racist assumption, the blacks did not possess the courage or intelligence to be soldiers. As a result, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, signed an order permitting up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in the Union forces at Port Royal, SC.
When presented with a choice, Smalls chose freedom, even at the cost of death. He faced the threat of capture and repression with the stone cold eye of resolute determination. His profile of courage is far more common in the epic tales of a people than many dare to admit. He was more American than Jefferson. He was more audacious than Washington. And he was more prophetic than Henry. This history is not only black history, it’s American history. It’s a portrait of a man that made a simple choice to risk dying in the cause of liberty over living in the shadows of tyranny. I’m just glad that he survived the ordeal long enough to recount his story for those who never knew that he made that choice.
TONY MACEO is a senior blogger at the Negromanosphere and the Chief Blogger at Power and Strategy.com. Like and share the articles and video podcasts, also become a Patron @powerofstrategies on Patreon. Subscribe to the mailing list of the website. Till NEXT TIME! I’ll holla!