On April 5, 1839, Robert Smalls, Civil War hero and five-term U.S. Congressman, was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, to his enslaved mother, Lydia Polite. In 1851, Smalls moved to the Charleston estate of his owner John McKee, where he learned many trades such as lamplighter, sailor, expert navigator, and other ship-related trades. While in Charleston, Smalls married Hannah Jones and had two daughters and a son that later died of smallpox. Smalls and his family lived separate from his owner yet sent a majority of their income to the McKees. Towards the start of the Civil War, Smalls was conscripted to the Confederate Army to work on the Planter, an ammunition transport.
On May 13, 1862, Smalls captained a small Black crew to hijack the Planter and bring it to the Union Army. Under the Union Army, Smalls commanded the Planter and later the Keokuk, the ironclad ship. Smalls led 12 engagements in the South Carolina seas to advance the Union Army.
While awaiting repairs of the Planter, Smalls was stationed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Smalls removed all White-only street cars to lead a massive boycott of segregated public transportation. The law was changed in 1867, integrating public transportation in Philadelphia.
In 1864, Smalls was 1 of 7 free black delegates to attend the 1864 Republican National Convention. At the end of the Civil War, Smalls was commissioned as brigadier general of the South Carolina militia. Smalls purchased the Beaufort house from his former owner, McKee. He opened a store and founded a school for Black children. In 1868, Smalls was a delegate to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention. He published the Beaufort Southern Standard in 1872.
Smalls did encounter several political challenges and losses. On November 26, 1877, Smalls was convicted and sentenced to three years on charges of accepting bribes while in the state senate. He served three days before being granted an appeal. This threatened his chances to win the Congressional election against Democrat George D. Tillman. Smalls won with Tillman contesting the election. The Democratic-majority Congress ruled in favor of Tillman; Smalls kept his seat. In 1878, Smalls lost the election to Tillman with the still unresolved criminal conviction and White supremacists threatening Black politicians. Smalls contested the election on grounds of Black disfranchisement and won.
Smalls attempted to secure federal debt relief of wartime debt for South Carolina. He helped pass a bill regulating the manufacturing and sale of liquor in D.C. He added an amendment to an appropriations bill to integrate restaurants and other eating facilities in D.C. The bill died in the Senate. In 1889, President Harrison appointed him Collector of the Port of Beaufort. In 1890, Smalls served as chairman of the South Carolina Republican convention.
On February 22, 1915, Smalls died of natural causes in Beaufort, South Carolina.
In September 2007, the U.S. Army renamed a marine vessel, Maj. Gen. Robert Smalls.
- Robert Smalls: A Resource Guide compiles digital materials related to Smalls from the Library of Congress, as well as links to external websites and a selected print bibliography.
- Explore the African American experience during Civil War through the exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship.
- Explore the biographies and research collections related to Robert Smalls and every member of Congress from 1774 to the present through the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- Read speeches by Smalls about the Hamburg, S.C., massacre on July 4, 1876, and the Protection of Texas Frontier. These are found in the collection, African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection.
- Mapping the National Parks documents the history, cultural aspects, and geological formations of areas that eventually became national parks. The collection consists of approximately 200 maps dating from the 17th century to the present. Browse the collection by subject, title, creator, or geographic location. There are also special presentations on Acadia, Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and Yellowstone National Parks.
- Review Act Establishing Yellowstone National Park: Primary Documents in American History to find resources about the creation of the nation’s first national park on March 1, 1872.
- A search on national park service in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey yields hundreds of drawings, photographs, and data pages on a wide variety of NPS areas.
- Search A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to find additional Congressional publications through 1875 that relate to the conservation movement and the creation of the National Park Service.
- Search on national parks through Congress.gov to find current bills, laws, and debates in Congress affecting the National Park Service and other environmental issues.
- Detroit Publishing Company and Panoramic Photographs contain a large selection of photographs featuring national parks; to view these images, search the collections on national park, national forest, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier Park, or the park of your choice.
- Visit the National Park Service’s website for information about visiting national park service areas. Educators will find online resources in the National Park Service’s Teachers page.
Conservationists, civic leaders, and government officials submitted testimony before Congress in favor of the establishment of the National Park Service on April 5 and April 6, 1916.
The parks are the Nation’s pleasure grounds and the Nation’s restoring places…
J. Horace McFarland, president of the American Civic Association, National Park Service. Hearing Before the Committee on the Public Lands…, April 5-6, 1916. Washington Gov’t. print. off., 1916. p. 53 The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
The congressional debate over the proper management of the growing system of national parks began in 1912 and culminated with the passage, in August 1916, of the National Park Service Act (39 Stat. 535; image 556). This legislation created the National Park Service within the Department of the Interior. Stephen T. Mather was named its first director.
In making his case for the agency, Richard B. Watrous, Secretary of the American Civic Association, recalled the rationale made by Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger in 1910.
“In order that creditable progress may be made in each of the national parks,” Ballinger had written:
liberal appropriations will be required…to create a bureau of national parks and resorts, under the supervision of a competent commissioner, with a suitable force of superintendents, supervising engineers, and landscape architects, inspectors, park guards, and other employees.
Richard B. Watrous, Secretary of the American Civic Association, National Park Service. Hearing Before the Committee on the Public Lands…, April 5-6, 1916. Washington Gov’t. print. off., 1916. p. 3 The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
Others pointed to the long-term economic benefits likely to accrue from the efficient investment in and management of the national parks.
When it was established on August 25, 1916, the National Park Service (NPS) supervised 40 national parks and monuments in some 390 areas. It now includes 419 units or parks, and more than 150 related areas covering more than 85 million acres in every state, as well as in the District of Columbia, and the U. S. territories. NPS sites—not only national parks and monuments—but also battlefields, military parks, historic sites, recreation areas, historical parks, historic sites, lakeshores and seashores, scenic rivers and trails, and the White House, attract hundreds of millions of visitors each year.