It always irritates me to hear people talk about sports figures as “heroes.” Such references cheapen the concept of heroism. Real heroes exhibit the qualities of exceptional bravery, selflessness, leadership and devotion to a cause. Most genuine heroes risk their lives to achieve worthy goals. They serve as examples in their own time and to subsequent generations. Nelson Mandela is one such hero. Robert Smalls, born a slave in 1839, was another.
Smalls freed himself, his crew and their families from slavery in 1862 by commandeering a Confederate transport ship in Charleston harbor and sailing it to freedom beyond the Federal blockade. Smalls knew that he would be shot if his escape failed. He was among those who finally persuaded President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton to allow black men to fight for the Union. In 1863, he became the first black captain of a US Navy vessel. Smalls served in 17 different military engagements during the Civil War.
After the War, he became a successful businessman and a five-term US Representative. In fact, Smalls was the longest serving African-American member of Congress until Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. in the late 20th Century.
Ironically – considering current US politics – Smalls was an ardent Republican until his death in 1915. He once said: “Every colored man who has a vote to cast, would cast that vote for the regular Republican Party and thus bury the DemocraticParty so deep that there will not be seen even a bubble coming from the spot where the burial took place.”
Smalls bought and lived in his former master’s house in Beaufort, South Carolina. Exhibiting extraordinary charity, he took in his former master’s wife – an elderly, homeless white woman – providing a home for her until she died.
Robert Smalls never considered himself a “hero.” He believed in America and the premise that all races could live harmoniously. I think that he would have been saddened to see the deepening racial divide in the United States nearly a century after his death.
The times have certainly changed. And not for the better.