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Who Was Congressman Robert Smalls?

Robert Smalls During the Latter Years

After losing his seat in Congress and his challenge to the disputed election of 1888, Robert Smalls returned to Beaufort, South Carolina as Collector of Customs for the Port of Beaufort.  He secured this political appointment from President Benjamin Harrison and held the position for nearly twenty years.  The position allowed him to maintain his power in the Republican Party in South Carolina, and he and his supporters were called the “Customs House Gang.”  His service in the position was noteworthy.  Smalls held his own in an era of southern politics in which African American officeholders were challenged repeatedly and often removed by white racist Democrats.  He lost the appointment during the presidency of Grover Cleveland  (1893 - 1897), but President William McKinley reappointed him to the post in 1898, and he served until 1912.  In that year, even though a Republican president, William Howard Taft, was in office, the state’s two Democratic Senators, Benjamin Tillman and Ellison D. Smith, blocked Smalls’ reappointment,

Robert Smalls died in February 1915.  He left an indelible legacy of bravery, leadership and public service for all Americans.  His life exemplified what many of the former enslaved African Americans were able to achieve with freedom, 
The traveling exhibition, “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls” honors his life and his legacy.


© The Robert Smalls Collection
Helen Boulware Moore, Ph. D. and W. Marvin Dulaney, Ph. D.