The tale of a former slave sheds light on South Carolina’s presidential primaries
The life of Robert Smalls, a slave turned politician, serves to illustrate the story of US race relations since reconstruction – a period whose central concerns remain powerfully relevant in 2016, a historian says
It is impossible not to think of history as we watch the poll results rolling in from South Carolina, where Clinton and Sanders vie for the state’s largely African American Democratic vote, and where Trump handily won the Republican contest, where exit polls indicated that 96% of voters were white .
Much of the state’s history – as the birthplace of secession and a stronghold of Jim Crow segregation – is shameful, and its repercussions are not entirely past. But looking back at one of the state’s legendary African American political figures might help us understand how the state decides to vote come this weekend, especially as the question of reparations becomes a national debate.
Robert Smalls was a slave who stole a Confederate ship during the Civil War and brought it to the Union fleet, gained his freedom, managed to get elected to the state legislature, and ultimately served five terms in Congress .
Smalls’ mother was a slave to Henry McKee, but as a young boy, Smalls was rented out in Charleston, where he learned how to pilot ships. When the civil war broke out – it started in Charleston – he and a number of other slaves worked on the Planter, a Confederate ship, which he daringly captured in the middle of the night and piloted through the mine-infested waters, first to pick up family members of the enslaved crew, and then to the Union blockade of the harbor.
He managed to successfully deliver the ship, which he continued to pilot throughout the war, becoming something of a cause célèbre. In 1865, he brought the Planter to Philadelphia, where he was to give a talk. He was kicked off of the segregated trolley on his way back to the ship, prompting a movement that eventually desegregated that city’s public transportation.
After the war, Smalls ran a store, a newspaper, and served in the state legislature – where he fought for and won the first public education in the state – before being elected to Congress for five terms.
His old home in Beaufort – at 511 Prince St – is marked a historical site and it is is, in many ways, a perfect monument to post-reconstruction race relations in America.
Smalls bought the home in a tax sale when he returned after the war. His mother had worked there raising the McKee children even though her own son, Robert, had been sent away. Now he was back and he legally owned the house.
“After the war, Henry McKee, who was most likely Robert’s father, died,” said Helen B Moore, Smalls’ great granddaughter, who manages a travelling exhibit dedicated to Small. “Mary Bowles McKee was left alone and was both physically and mentally ill . She wandered her way back to the house where she had lived for many years. She came to the door and Smalls, of course, recognised her. She wanted to come in and he allowed her to do so – she was quite ill and quite demented and had no idea the house had been sold.”
She did not remember that the house was no longer her property, according to Moore, but also probably didn’t realise that Smalls himself was not her property anymore.
Moore says the story was passed down through family lore, and no one can say whether it’s true or not. But we can imagine the horror of those conversations as Smalls tried to gently remind this woman, day after day, again and again, that they were equals, he was in the legislature, and he was not her property.
In many ways, the story of Robert Smalls and Mary McKee is the story of race relations in America for the last 150 years. White America continually slips into a kind of dementia, repeatedly forgetting that the world has changed, that we white people don’t own African Americans, that we are not better than them, more valuable, or more deserving of reward. In order to awaken ourselves – and I write this as a white male born and raised in South Carolina – perhaps we need a new reconstruction.
The “ Bargain of 1877 ” ended reconstruction in the south, and we fell into the folly of Jim Crow when the state constitution of 1895 legally enshrined segregation. We were awakened and reminded again of the errors of our ways during the civil rights movement, but quickly drifted into a new form of the dementia as the drug war and mass incarceration followed through.
Last month, Hillary Clinton gaffed at an Iowa debate by implying that reconstruction was a bad time in the nation’s history. The question – who was her favorite president – was an attempt to catch her between Obama and her husband Bill. Instead, she tripped into another hole when she chose that safest of presidential heroes, Abraham Lincoln.
“I don’t know what our country might have been like had he not been murdered, but I bet that it might have been a little less rancorous, a little more forgiving and tolerant, that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly,” she said.
“But instead, you know, we had reconstruction, we had the reinstigation of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the south feeling totally discouraged and defiant. So, I really do believe he could have very well put us on a different path.”
Hillary had backed herself into the old-school view of “the horrors of reconstruction”, and the response, most notably by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic , was fierce and immediate.
Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University and the author of numerous books on the subject, said: “Here’s why Hillary’s remark struck a chord with people, a negative chord … The old view of reconstruction as a period of misgovernment, of punishment of the white south and that kind of thing, the underpinnings of that are still around today. They reverberate today – the notion that giving rights to black people is a punishment to whites in some way.”
Foner suggests that the discussion of reconstruction is not really about the past. “A lot of the questions that are being debated in our campaign right now are reconstruction issues. You know, who’s a citizen, who should be a citizen? How do you deal with terrorism? What’s the balance of power between the federal government and the states? And the right to vote? In other words, we are seeing issues of reconstruction really fought out right now.”
The Clinton campaign’s clarification – issued a day after the debate – seemed to concede these same points, noting that “too many injustices remain today. Attempts to suppress voting rights go back to racist efforts against reconstruction, and in fighting for voting rights and equality today we are continuing a long struggle that still has to be fought and won in our own generation”.
For the last 16 years, Foner has been working to convince the national park service to create a monument to reconstruction. “There is no national park site in the whole US devoted to the history of reconstruction, a symbol of the enduring power of the old view of reconstruction,” he said.
And Beaufort, South Carolina is the place for it.
“All the history of reconstruction kind of works out in microcosm in the Beaufort area, whether it’s politics, economics, emancipation, education, you name it, black power, it all happens there,” he said.
And if Beaufort is the microcosm of reconstruction, Robert Smalls is its central figure.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2016