Who Was Congressman Robert Smalls?
Reconstruction and Smalls’ Political Career
Following he Civil War, Robert Smalls continued to build upon his reputation as a hero and as a leader in the African-American community. He was one of the founders of the Beaufort County, South Carolina Republican Club. He served on he Beaufort County School Board and helped to establish the first school built for African-American children. Smalls became famous as a result of his daring acts during the war and entered politics at the dawn of the Reconstruction era. He became a leader in "the low country" and was elected to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1868 and proposed resolutions to create South Carolina’s public school system and o protect the civil rights of African Americans. From 1869 to 1889, he served in both houses of the South Carolina Legislature and was elected to five terms in the United States Congress. His most important legislation during his five terms in Congress was a bill that led to the creation of Parris Island Marine Base in South Carolina.
The success of African-American leaders in South Carolina politics, such as Smalls, was an affront to the Democrats, called the “Redeemers,” who wanted to return the state to its pre-war status of white supremacy. After 1876, the “Redeemers” were successful in falsely charging and convicting Smalls of bribery and forcing him from office. But unlike most of his African-American contemporaries, Smalls fought back, regaining his congressional seat, and continued to fight for African-American representation and participation in state politics. Despite having to fight an ongoing and often losing, battle with South Carolina Democrats for political power in the state, Smalls was a powerbroker in the Republican Party in his hometown of Beaufort, across the state of South Carolina and in national politics for over forty years. From 1868 to 1912, he only missed two Republican National Conventions: one by choice in 1880 and the other in 1912 due to family illness.
Robert Smalls at the 1895 South Carolina Constitutional Convention
By 1895, Benjamin Tillman and the “Redeeming” Democrats in South Carolina had succeeded through violence, terror, and election fraud to reduce the number of African American registered to vote in the state from 81,000 in 1868 to less than 10,000 in 1894. Tillman called for a constitutional convention in 1895 to rewrite the state constitution of 1868 and to take away the right to vote of African Americans in South Carolina. In 1868, seventy-six of the 124 delegates elected to the constitutional convention were African Americans, in 1895 only six African Americans were elected to serve. Five of the delegates were from Robert Smalls’ power base, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Robert Smalls was one of these five delegates, and he was the only African-American delegate who had also attended the 1868 convention. He did his best to represent his constituency and to fight against their disfranchisement. After giving one of the most important speeches of the convention on November 2, he was forced to leave the convention and return to Beaufort for several days because of the illness, and eventual death, of his second wife, Annie Wigg Smalls. On November 14, he returned to the convention and refused to sign the new constitution that changed South Carolina’s suffrage requirements and essentially disfranchised African Americans.