Robert Smalls in 1862. (Hagley Museum and Library)
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.”
Over the last several days, white nationalist terrorists descended on the city of Charlottesville, Virginia in order to protest the recent removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. As a direct result of their actions, at least three people are dead.
This is merely the latest outrage perpetrated by white nationalists in defense of Confederate symbols in general and memorials to Lee in particular. Yet there are “moderates” on the right who would have us believe that Lee was a good and noble man, that the use of him as a symbol by bigots and terrorists represents a perversion of his legacy.
Two years ago nine African American worshipers were killed in a racially motivated terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the wake of the attack journalists discovered that the perpetrator had been regularly photographed with Confederate flags. Since that time a growing number of people have called, often successfully, for the removal of Confederate flags and symbols from public places.