The Life and Times of Robert Smalls traveling exhibit coming home to Beaufort

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The Life of a South Carolinian who was born in slavery and eventually became a United States Congressman is examined in a new exhibit opening April 5 at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort.

The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls began as a part of South Carolina State Museum’s Traveling Exhibits Program.  The museum traveled the exhibit for three years and through 13 cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Huntsville, Ala., before bringing it home to open at a venue located less than 10 ft. away from Robert Smalls’ Grave Site and Monument on the Tabernacle Baptist Church’s Campus.

“The exhibit was on view at libraries, universities and museums presenting the remarkable story of Robert Smalls to more than 75,000 people.” said Jeff Powley, manager of the exhibit

On May 13, 1862 Robert Smalls and three other enslaved men escaped captivity in a courageous and well planned action during the Civil War.  Smalls escaped to freedom when he commandeered a Confederate ship, the Planter, in Charleston Harbor posing as the ship’s captain with his crew.

They were able to pass Confederate checkpoints because they knew the correct signals and sailed to the safety of the Union forces, gaining freedom for himself and his family.  As a result of his fame that came from his daring deed, President Abraham Lincoln allowed him to lead the effort to enlist Black men to fight for the Union forces in the Civil War.  He helped to recruit nearly 5,000 former enslaved African-American men for the Union army who fought valiantly during the Civil War.

Smalls entered politics at the dawn of the Reconstruction era.  He became a leader in Beaufort County, was elected to the South Carolina legislature and in 1874 he was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served five terms.  Congressman Smalls wrote legislation creating the public school system in South Carolina and dedicating land for Paris Island Naval Station.

Smalls ended his career as collector of customs at the Port of Beaufort, where he died in 1915 and was buried at Tabernacle Baptist Church. A wealthy man, Smalls purchased many homes in Beaufort, including the home of his former master, Henry Mckee.

The exhibit at Tabernacle of “The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls” include furniture from the “big house” where Smalls and his mother were enslaved; two replicas of two ships that Robert Smalls piloted during the Civil War; letters written by Robert Smalls to dignitaries of the time; pictures of his home in Beaufort, SC, his immediate family and descendants through the generations. Copies of legislation that created the first public schools in South Carolina, the South Carolina Public Accommodations Act and legislation that created Parris Island Marine Base all submitted by Robert Smalls during his career as a South Carolina Legislator and US Congressman can also be viewed with this exhibit.  A digital photo frame with pictures of the 2004 christening and the 2007 commissioning of the LSV-8 MG ROBERT SMALLS, the largest army transport ship of its kind is also a part of the Tabernacle exhibit.

State Representative Kenneth Hodges, who pastors the Tabernacle Baptist Church  says, “Robert Smalls is truly the quintessential American hero, he left an indelible legacy of bravery, leadership and public service for our youths and all Americans.  We are honored to have this exhibit in Robert Smalls Hometown at the site where he is buried during the 150th Anniversary of Smalls capture of the Planter”.

The exhibit’s opening celebration will occur on Robert Smalls’ birthday, Friday, April 5, at the Tabernacle Baptist Church beginning at 6:30 p.m. Congressman James Clyburn, the first African-American elected to Congress from South Carolina after Reconstruction, will be the keynote speaker.  Congressman Clyburn represents parts of the district once represented by Robert Smalls.  The celebration will also include remarks from SC State Senator Clementa Pinckney and SC State Representative Kenneth Hodges, both representing parts of the district once served by Smalls.

A series of events at Tabernacle will accompany the exhibit.  The exhibit is a part of the Tabernacle Baptist Church’s 150th Anniversary Celebration.  The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls can be seen at the Tabernacle annex located at 907 Craven Street through June 19.

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