Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, a slave named Lydia Polite, gave birth in a small shack tucked behind the comfortable home of her master Henry McKee, who may very well have been Robert’s father.
Lydia taught her son about the true evil of slavery from an early age, taking him to a local jail to see a slave woman whipped mercilessly and to a slave auction to see human beings – children among them – bought and sold like cattle. She had been ripped away from her own family at age 9, and she was determined to prepare her son for a difficult and dangerous future. Robert took her teaching to heart. He remarked later in life, “Although born a slave I always felt that I was a man and ought to be free, and I would be free or die.”