The Early Years
Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839, in a small cottage behind the McKee house at Prince and New Streets in Beaufort, SC. He was the son of Lydia Polite, a house servant who had been working for the McKees since she was taken from her family as a young child on the Ashdale Plantation on Lady’s Island. Robert’s father was very likely to have been Henry McKee, the son of the plantation owner where Lydia’s family lived and worked all of their lives.
Robert’s early life was rather easy as compared with that of other enslaved children. He was taken around town by Henry McKee and had opportunities to play with children in the neighborhood, both black and white. The ease of Robert’s life was disturbing to his mother, as she knew that Robert did not really understand the horrors of slavery. So Lydia made arrangements for Robert to spend time with her family on the plantation where he could see just how slavery could be. On the plantation Robert didn’t sleep on a little cot in the small cottage behind the McKee’s house but slept with the other enslaved family members on the earthen floor. He didn’t play with neighboring children but worked on the plantation picking cotton, rice, and tobacco in the fields from sun up to sun down. He didn’t wear nice clothes but wore the tattered clothing of the other enslaved men, women and children. Robert was being taught the lessons of slavery first hand. When he returned to Beaufort, Lydia took him down to the whipping post so he could see how enslaved people were beaten when they broke the rules. Robert learned the lessons well. He learned that life of enslaved Africans was not the relatively easy life that had been his during the first ten years of his life. The result of this lesson led Robert to defiance, and he began to challenge the local slave laws of the town. Robert frequently found himself in the Beaufort jail, and Henry McKee had to come down to bail him out. Now Lydia began to fear for her son’s safety, so she asked McKee to allow Smalls to go to Charleston to be rented out to work.
At age 12, small Robert Smalls moved to Charleston and began to perform a number of jobs: at first waiting tables in a hotel, then lamp lighting, working on the waterfront, and finally working on the Planter. He had to give all of his money except for $1.00 a week to the McKees. But Robert was industrious, and he saved his money and did other small jobs to make more. On the Planter Robert learned all of the skills needed to become an excellent pilot, and he conducted all of the jobs that should have been done by the ship’s Captain. There were three other enslaved men working on the Planter as well, and together they were capable of maneuvering the Planter without the white crew.
At the age of 19, Robert met and married Hannah Jones. Shortly after their marriage they had two children: Elizabeth Lydia and Robert Smalls, Jr. Robert was aware that white couples who were married lived together in the same accommodations, and he asked permission of the McKees and the Kingmans, with whom Robert and Hannah were enslaved, to allow them to live together. Permission was granted and they moved into a small apartment in Charleston. Robert was still dissatisfied, however, because he realized that although he and Hannah were married and living together with their family, they were not free. The Kingmans could take Hannah and the children away from him at any time. He had to find a way to purchase freedom for his wife and children. But how? Robert approached the Kingmans and requested that they allow him to purchase his wife, Hannah, and their two children. The Kingmans finally agreed to the request. The purchase fee was $800, and Robert only had $100. How long would it take to save up another $700? He needed to come up with another plan. He must find a way to gain freedom for all of them.