Slavery and the Making of AmericaPicture of the first black U.S. Senator and representatives
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The Slave Experience: Freedom & Emancipation
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Character Spotlight Freedom & Emancipation

Photograph of Robert Smalls
Photograph of Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls (1839-1915)

Robert Smalls was born into slavery on the McKee plantation. At twelve, Robert was hired out in Charleston. After several years, he gained permission to secure his own employment. This allowed Robert to earn more than the monthly wages his master claimed from him. Robert and his wife saved; they talked of buying freedom.

Illustration of paddlewheel steamship
Illustration of paddlewheel steamship
Then Civil War erupted in 1861. Confederate forces commandeered the ship on which Robert worked. Suddenly, Robert was helping to preserve the world he longed to escape. He organized a group of black crewmen. Under the cover of night the men and their families boarded The Planter and sailed toward a Union blockade. Smalls surrendered the vessel and joined the Union navy. He was granted freedom.

During the war, thousands of slaves fled north. Many, like Smalls, fought as Union sailors and soldiers. In 1863 slaves celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation: the Union's cause was also their cause, its victory was their victory. With the end of war came the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery.
Exterior photograph of McKee House
Making a House a Home

Exterior photograph of McKee House
Robert Smalls grew up as a slave in this house owned by his master, Mr. McKee. After the war, Smalls returned to South Carolina having achieved not only freedom, but also respect and notoriety. Smalls bought the McKee House and put his mother, Lydia, in charge of the property. Lydia, too, had worked in the house as a slave. Now, she lived there as a free woman.

Learn more about Robert Smalls from the Robert Smalls Foundation web site and online information center. Go to

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