Robert Smalls lauded as civil rights pioneer

Elise Williams takes time to read the Robert Smalls historical marker that the National Park Service dedicated Saturday at Charleston Riverfront Park. The 7-year-old was at the ceremony with her mother, Charleston native Melaine Williams of Atlanta.

On a day when Robert Smalls was remembered in Charleston for his daring escape from slavery during the Civil War, historians said he also was an important and early visionary of civil rights.

And they said his name should be better known than it is. Because Smalls, who eventually served five terms as a South Carolina congressman during Reconstruction, was ahead of his time.

At a panel discussion hosted by Morris Brown AME Church on Saturday night, a group of historians discussed Smalls’ considerable legacy before, during and after the Civil War.

W. Marvin Dulaney, history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and former executive director of the Avery Research Center, noted that Smalls fought in Congress for the rights of blacks to be served in restaurants, for voting rights, equal opportunity and a desegregated Army — progressive movements that largely would not come until the next century.

“Smalls gives us an example of how the civil rights movements and the goals of the movement extend backward past 1954,” Dulaney said.

Earlier in the day, Smalls’ descendants joined with the National Park Service, Charleston Museum, city and Historic Charleston Foundation to dedicate two monuments to Smalls, who commandeered the Confederate boat he piloted on May 13, 1862, and sailed to freedom with his family and a half-dozen other slaves.

Bernard Powers, history professor at the College of Charleston, noted that Smalls made the most of opportunities he gained from living a “blessed life” as a largely autonomous slave living in Charleston as a young man.

After Smalls commandeered the Planter, and later was named the first captain of a ship for the U.S. government, he served in South Carolina’s Legislature, then represented the state in Congress.

Elaine Nichols, senior curator of culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, said Smalls’ success during and after the war represented a “symbolic victory for millions of African-Americans,” and noted that he will be prominently featured in the museum, scheduled to open in 2015.

That will certainly raise Smalls’ profile beyond Charleston, but audience members asked why he isn’t already well-known as a historical figure.

Stephen Wise, director of the Parris Island Museum, said Smalls focused most of his efforts on the local level.

And when South Carolina leaders rewrote the state’s history to expunge the achievements of blacks, Smalls was in some part forgotten.

Two days of events this weekend, a traveling museum exhibit and a prominent spot in the Smithsonian is aimed at changing all that.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at @BriHicks_PandC.