tv QA with Cate Lineberry CSPAN August 6, 2017 11:00pm-12:00am EDT
cate lineberry. then the inauguration ceremony for a rainy and president. ♪ >> this week on "q&a," journalist and author cate lineberry. she discusses her book "be free or die," the amazing story of robert smalls' escape from slavery to union hero. host: cate lineberry. when did you first get interested in robert smalls, and who was he? cate: i first learned about his
story a few years ago. i was looking for another idea. my youngest brother sent me a short article on robert smalls. i was astounded to find i have never heard of this man. i have done a lot of writing for the new york times. i worked for smithsonian magazine and read about the civil war for them and i had never heard of him. it was a little article that encapsulated his life and i wanted to know more. i wanted to know how this man, who have been told from the time he was a young child that he was not worth anything could have had the courage and determination to find a way out of slavery. i was intrigued and could not reading about him. brian: born in 1839. where was he born and into what situation? cate: he was born in piu forte, south carolina, 75 miles from charleston. it is a very small town at the time, but a very wealthy town. it was founded -- the wealth the slaved who hadom
been imported from west africa. the main crops were indigo, cotton, and rice. it was mostly rice. he at the time -- brian: as you are talking, i was thinking about who was his mother and father? brian: we do not know who his father was. many people believe he was the owner of smalls. his mother was a slave born on the plantation of the mckie family. she was nine or 10 and taken from the plantation with the mckee family to help raise their children. so we don't know who robert smalls' father was. knew.t think he ever chosen bysmalls" was
robert himself. brian: they were a wealthy family in beaufort, beaufort royalty. they were a prominent family that had the respect of a lot of people. robert was fortunate in the fact that henry mckee was a very kind owner. being owned can have a kind owner. enslaved, which made it a difficult life. he was fortunate in the fact that he was raised as a house
slave serving with his mother. obviously, no one who was enslaved is having the life they would like. it was much more -- they had access to information and they had regular food and hand-me-down clothes. brian: how many brothers and sisters? cate: lydia had one son p by the time she had robert, she was in her 40's. but he pretty much grew up as an only child living in the house, the slave house behind the mckee house, which still exists today in beaufort on the historic registry. brian: what is beaufort, south carolina like? i know people make a mistake all the time that there is a beauford, north carolina. how far is it from houston? cate: 75 miles, also on the coast. beaufort is a beautiful town. very small compared to charleston. at the time, they did have a lot of slaves living in town and robert would have gone out to the plantations with mckee to help him with some of his duties. he was seeing a lot of different ways of life.
brian: let me interrupt to point out this map. if you were straining to find out where beaufort is an charleston, it is right down there on the southern, southeastern point there. cate: it was a very strategic place for the union army in november, 1851. that is where they decided they were going to have a port. port royal is just south of beaufort, the first naval victory of the war. and by doing so, by this point, smalls was already in general thin. he had been relocated there by his owner. in 1861, the union captured the area and buford became this union stronghold. it had charleston citizens very worried because they were so close. brian: why did the civil war start in charleston? cate: south carolina was the first state to secede. austin was known as the spiritual capital of the confederacy. it was not as strategical place to capture as it would be a moral victory for the union. it quickly became a place where the union wanted to capture it and they wanted to prove to the south that they were the victor.
brian: the war actually started on what date? do you remember? cate: april 12, 1861. that's right. [laughter] brian: how many people lived in that part of the united states? cate: i mean, compared to the north, there were a lot fewer people living in the south, but charleston was a place where a lot of -- during the international slave trade, about 60% of slaves who came into the country came through charleston. it was a major port in the country. and it was, like i said before, a very important spiritual capital of the confederacy. a lot of good then services came out of charleston, and compared to beaufort, there was a major city for smalls. he was relocated there by his owner when he was just 12 years old. mckee decided he was going to move houses and we think that lydia, robert's mother, encouraged mckee to allow robert to go to charleston with the hopes of having more options. of course, he was hired out as a slave, which was a common practice at the time. so he was on his own to find work, but everything he earned went back to mckee.
brian: what was a slave worse than? guest: it depended on several factors. one was your age, how muscular you were, lots of factors went into this. i know that when robert eventually married a woman named hannah, and when hannah was sold to her owner, kingman, in 1847, she and her three children were worth about $2000. brian: hannah was how much older than robert? guest: about 13 years older, considerably older. brian: you say you legally could not marry if you were a slave? guest: that is right. it was a law in south carolina, but they were able to get the permission of their owners. robert smalls had to get the permission of henry mckee and he also had to go to hannah's owner and ask permission for her. it was only something that was allowed for trusted slaves. it was something that would help their morale and it was something that they can easily do. i mean, of course, any slave children that were born would become the property of the female slave's owner, so it would encourage relationships and marriage when possible. brian: how did you get interested in the civil war? guest: ever since i was young. i have two ancestors -- i grew up knowing that both ancestors fought on gettysburg, either side of the war. that was very intriguing to me. one was 28 years all the he was one of the pennsylvania buck. another was a 19-year-old kid from north carolina. they were both injured at gettysburg and the confederate was actually sent to a pow camp. that was intriguing to me.
the more i read about it as i got older and root pieces for the new york times blog, i became intrigued. it is such a fascinating time in our history area i think the reverberations of the war are clearly still being felt today. so i think it is an important period for us to understand. it was robert smalls' story that intrigues me, but he is a video call for the racial relationships at the time, what i thought was very interesting. i thought i was fairly knowledgeable about the subject, but i learned there was a much more i did not know. brian: what was one of the first things you learned that you did not know?
cate: ever since i was young. i have two ancestors -- i grew up knowing that both ancestors fought on gettysburg, either side of the war. that was very intriguing to me. one was 28 years all the he was one of the pennsylvania buck. another was a 19-year-old kid from north carolina. they were both injured at gettysburg and the confederate was actually sent to a pow camp. that was intriguing to me. the more i read about it as i got older and root pieces for the new york times blog, i became intrigued. it is such a fascinating time in our history area i think the reverberations of the war are clearly still being felt today.
so i think it is an important period for us to understand. it was robert smalls' story that intrigues me, but he is a video call for the racial relationships at the time, what i thought was very interesting. i thought i was fairly knowledgeable about the subject, but i learned there was a much more i did not know. brian: what was one of the first things you learned that you did not know? cate: i did not realize when any enslaved person -- that is the preferred term by a people because it gives the power back to the person -- they were enslaved rather than defining them as a slave -- but for those that were enslaved and got to their freedom, i did not realize they were considered contraband, so robert smalls, when he actually became -- got to the union ships in his great escape, he was not actually free. now, most slaves did not recognize that necessarily, but it was an important point. the u.s. government was not ready to say whether we were going to free all the slaves, whether that was a point of the war. it was a major factor. i did not realize how much lincoln had also, you know, he was trying to placate the border states so much, that for so long, he was not sure what he was going to do about the slaves either. brian: where did you grow up? cate: i grew up in raleigh, north carolina. unc chapel hill. brian: to study the civil war, how did you go about it? how often did he go where there is a battle? cate: i read a lot of books. in my research, for these writing projects come i did that. i also certainly have been to gettysburg and other major civil war attractions. i think going to anyplace is so important to get a feel when you are doing your research, which is why i spent time in austin and beaufort. when you start seeing the places where these people walked, it becomes more real to you. you know, i think, the more we can learn about the civil war, the better off we will all be. it is still impacting us today.
brian: robert smalls footer graph is on the screen. tell us some things about him. how long did he live? cate: he lived until 1915. he ended up becoming a u.s. congressman. he served five terms in the house of representatives. his career -- it was difficult after he had been accused -- there was a bribery charge against him at one point in his career. he never fully recovered from that. my opinion, that is one of the reasons he is not better known today. he ended up ending his career as a customs collector in beaufort, but when i look at this man, i see someone who had incredible courage and perseverance. when he ended up -- well, he had several children. one young boy died during the war. his other three children that he had throughout his life, he valued education and he made sure they had the best education they could. and when i look at him, i see a father who was very concerned that his children have a better life. it is ultimately the reason that he decided to take the chance that he did in escaping on the planter. he risked everything. he had a four-year-old and young son at the time along with his wife out of slavery. brian: what is the plantar? cate: a side wheel steamer that roberts was working on. it was built right before the war happened. once the war -- it was used as a cause and transport ship. once the were broke out, the owner of it, john ferguson, started leasing it to the confederates. $125 per day, a considerable amount. when robert decided he was going to escape on board the ship, it was may 1862. he had been working on board -- he started as a deckhand but worked as a wheelman or a pilot. they would not give the title of pilot to a slave at the time, but that essentially is what he was doing. he escaped in may 1862. brian: if he was a slave into
olson, and you are walking around, how does someone know you are enslaved? cate: charleston has a unique custom in that they had slave badges that they required all slaves to wear. they are usually diamond shaped metal badges. was up to the owner to -- it was like a license. every year, they would have to get a badge that said what occupation they were doing and what year it was. and so, any flavor that was walking around, including smalls, would have had to wear a badge at all times, in part to differentiate them from the free black population, which i did not realize was fairly substantial in charleston. about 3000 free blacks at the time. brian: how did the free black and enslaved blacks get along? cate: i think a lot of people -- a lot of free blacks often times
tried to help their enslaved brothers and sisters by a actually purchasing -- by actually purchasing them. it was actually illegal unless the legislature approved it to you your slaves by this point. by this point, a lot of free blacks are just family members as a way to get them out of the control of their owner. of course, it is a very debated topic and there are lots of interesting stories, but there certainly were some free blacks who owned slaves as well. but i think robert was part of several secret societies. we do not know a lot of their dealings, but mutual aid societies. some of them were with free blacks, and some made up of slaves, but they tried to help each other.
when one person's family member died, they might all contribute for a funeral. there was some reciprocity and interactions within the community, but for the most part, i think slaves were so controlled that they did not have a lot of time to interact. it was illegal for more than three or so african-americans to meet together without a white person present. brian: so just for this moment, if you were inflamed and all of asuddenved and all of takere sold, do you just the badge off? cate: if you were enslaved and sold -- brian: sold to a freeman? a free black. or it did not matter. you all of a sudden -- let us say you are sold to someone else
and they just freed you, what would happen? cate: technically, you were not freed because it is illegal. it is a great, interesting question. i would assume you would still have to follow the rules of the day and you could not -- you were still limited because you were still a slave even though, for all intents and purposes, you were living with your family member who had purchased you. so i think that you would still probably be wearing a slave badge and walking around. brian: so when the attack came at fort sumner in april of 1861, where was robert smalls on that day? cate: he was already working on board the planter. he was a deckhand. he had just started working.
we do not know specifically what he saw that day, but i'm sure he saw a lot of the white charlestonians watching from their rooftops. it was something. both sides thought the war would end very quickly. we had millions of deaths. robert also would have seen a lot of the celebrations in the streets. fireworks going off. they wanted this battle at that point, the white charlestonians. brian: when did it all begin that robert smalls wanted to figure out a way to get away from the confederates? cate: i think he was always looking as he was growing older, but once he married hannah, he was 17 years old when they married. they soon had children and that really elevated his look for freedom a lot more. he did not want them to grow up in the atmosphere he had. there were some very brutal aspects of charleston particularly your there was something called the workhouse where if an owner did not want to punish his plays by himself, he could send them for a fee to the workhouse, which was a former sugar warehouse. sometimes, owners would threaten their slaves by saying "i'm going to send you for a little
sugar." brian: was that located downtown in charleston? cate: that no longer exists now. the building was in downton charleston. laves were punished there -- slaves were punished there. there was a treadmill. it was pretty orinda stuff. robert would have seen that growing up and so yeah. brian: was he or any of his family members ever sent to the workhouse? cate: we don't know. he did talk about, in 1863, he was interviewed by the american freeman. he talked about the brutality he had seen on beaufort plantation
and his mother, lydia, who was a very important person in creating robert as the person that he was, she instilled in him determination and courage. she had taken him to see some slaves being sold and punished in beaufort when he was a child. through his own words to that commission, we know he saw some pretty brutal things on the foundation including talked about seeing his aunt whipped. he was the only member of his family in charleston, so when he was sent there at the age of 12, he was essentially on his own. he was under the supervision of henry mckee's sister-in-law. but you know, just to imagine the 12 year old walking around the streets of charleston, trying to find work, seeing people being bought and sold on the street, and that was always his fear, that his family would be ripped away from him. that was really why he was searching so hard to escape. not just for himself, but his family. it was very difficult for a slave to run away. when you have two children into
one being a very young child, it is nearly impossible. he really had to find a unique way to escape. he was looking for a long time. brian: the ship, the planter, was owned by you? cate: john ferguson. he leased it to the confederacy at the time. brian: how big was it? cate: 147 feet long. brian: how many people served on it? cate: there was a crew of about 10. that included three white officers. they were officers in the sense that they were working on the book but not enlisted in the confederacy. there was a captain and first mate and a deckhand. sorry, and an engineer. there was the enslaved crew.
brian: when did robert smalls begin the process of trying to do something about the planter? and where was his family? cate: his family was nearby in charleston, but a lot of slaves did not live together. they did not see each other regularly. but robert started thinking about escaping soon after a new captain came on board the planter. his name was charles. he had two things that made robert smalls' plan possible. he was wearing this widebrimmed straw hat. the third thing that was critical is he often decided to leave the ship in the enslaved crews' hands while they spent time with their families. that was a direct violation of confederate orders, but he either trusted smalls and the other men or he likely did not think they were capable of
taking the steamer out of charleston harbor, which was a monumental feat for anyone, but at the time, even in the north, a lot of white did not believe african-americans were capable of such a feat. so you had the white officers and then smalls and his crew on board. brian: what was the date of the escape and how did he do it? cate: they had been moving guns around charleston harbor for two weeks, and smalls was already thinking that -- he joked around with one of his crew members that when the crewmember member put the hat of the captain on robert's head, he said maybe i can impersonate this white captain between the straw hat, i'm stocky, and we leave at the right time of day, where it is dark enough, and we get out of the harbor.
and so -- what was your initial question? brian: how did it start? on the day that he decided he wanted to escape, what was the set up? cate: they had been moving these guns across the harbor for the last two weeks and small decided, not only -- if the white crew leaves tonight and goes home to be with their families, not only could we escape, but we would have guns on board, valuable guns that would be worth everything to the union. his plan was to take the ship from the harbor out to the union fleet, which was blockading the harbor as part of lincoln's blockade of all southern ports. they had met earlier and all agreed to wait for his signal. he was the mastermind behind the plan. and he decided that that night, once he found out the white officers were leaving, that was the night they would make their escape. they had been having their families come down in preparation for this event, not knowing exactly which night it would happen, but had their families coming down to spend time with them on board the ship, so it was not unusual for them to be there.
in fact, hannah, roberts wife, was the only woman -- the only family member who knew there was a plan that they were waiting to put into place. the others found out that night once the slave curfew was about to be enstated and they kept saying we need to get back, we need to get back. that is when small decided to tell them what is happening. brian: the union chips and soldiers, were they not inside of charleston? cate: they were outside the harbor. charleston harbor was incredibly fortified by that point. there were numerous confederate fortifications going out who the harbor with fort sumter being the final one with its massive guns. the union fleet was 10 miles away from where smalls was moored.
brian: what time of the evening did he leave charleston when he was trying to escape? cate: it was about 3:00 a.m. he had gotten the family members that accompanied the crude that escaped. they had gotten them to another boat nearby because the planter was moored right next to a confederate general's headquarters. not only did smalls have this incredible opportunity -- courage -- to take the planter, but he actually did it when it was next to a confederate general's headquarters. brian: he was what age? cate: he was 23. he was not allowed to read or write, had been enslaved his whole life. brian: how did the ship move? was it a sail? cate: by steam. they had to put the fires going
and get the ship going. so, there was a critical time period. they had to figure out when it would make sense. the ship would be operating normally and when it would be dark enough that it would help cover them. not too dark that it would suspicion of the confederates. so that is why he decided to leave about 3:00, because he wanted to hit fort sumter around 4:00, 4:30. it would help obscure him. they had to look like there was a white crew member on board. it would have roused suspicion immediately if anyone had known this was enslaved crew growing through the confederate harbor. when they took off that morning, the new that at any point if one the sentries suspected that smalls was without a white crew member, they would have immediately attacked and likely, they would have died instantly. brian: how often did something
like this happen? cate: never. it never happened. there were times when there were -- as soon as the blockade of the southern ports happen, there were slaves that swam -- often read both -- to get to the union fleet. when the union was doing any reconnaissance, they would try to find them and ask for them to bring them on board, because once they were on board, they were considered free, or at least under union control. just two weeks before smalls did his incredible feat, one of the confederate generals' headquarters -- there was a small barge that was taken by a few slaves. that was a huge embarrassment to the confederacy. amazingly enough, they did not change any of their security protocols after that had happened. that event may have inspired smalls to do what he did. we don't know, but he was certainly aware of it. brian: how much education did he have? cate: he had no education. he had never been allowed to read or write. that was against the law.
he was completely illiterate. he would have been -- compared to a plantation slave -- he would have been privvy to a lot more information because he was listening to conversations. in terms of conversation, he had no education. brian: did his mother know he was doing this? cate: that is a great question. likely not. she was in beaufort at the time. he had been in charleston. very rarely got to see her. that was quite a distance to travel. he was living his own life. and because lydia had been in beaufort at the time when the union captured port royal, she was technically under union control. she was actually freed. technically a contraband, but freed while robert was in charleston working as a slave. ?rian: you had charleston and cl
how many union troops were there? guest: 14,000 landed. during that attack, it was led by admiral samuel did. atmosphereat was the in 1862. guest: this was made. host: what was the atmosphere? guest: people realized the war was not going to end quickly. the union needed a victory. they needed a port. to resupplya way their ships. i think it was a time where anything was possible. the south could have won at that point. no one knew what was going to happen, and certainly in charleston people were just waiting, bracing themselves for an attack. just 70 miles away, you have 14,000 union soldiers now.
they knew what the target they were because of their involvement. charleston is where the secession ordinance was signed. as i said earlier, it was the spiritual capital. host: how did he take his family with him that night? how many other families were allowed to get on-board the planter? >> there were 16 people total on-board the ship. there were a few changes at the last minute. two men decided they couldn't go through with it. we don't know specifically why. i'm assuming there was fear of reprisal, what could happen to their family members even if they made it. of course, they could have been concerned with their own lives and getting out safely. but the first mate had his family on-board. smalls had his wife and two children, and then there were
two other women. we don't quite know their relationship. they were likely friends or family members of other crew members. we do know that years later smalls hosted a wedding for one of those young women, and said, considered her an adopted daughter, but it was 16 people on-board that ship that night. host: how did they get to the union ships out there? guest: so they had the family members and a few crew hidden at a wharf that was behind them, so they started at southern wharf, backtracked, which would have created suspicion. there were a couple of confederate guards who noticed. one actually watched them, but he did not report it. he just thought they were going about their business. so there was a lot of luck with them on this whole journey, but they backtracked to pick up their family members, and then they took their time. they had to go slowly. they couldn't be in a hurry or it would arouse suspicion, and
they passed all the different forts. they went near fort johnson first. they waited to see if there was any commotion or anybody sensing anything. they were relieved when there wasn't. and then they finally got to fort sumter. they had to know the right codes to say, but smalls had done enough reconnaissance trips out, outside of the harbor that he knew the proper code and did it and waited patiently to see if they were going to attack or not. the confederates were not aware of what was going on until smalls turned towards the union fleet instead of going the way he normally would have. that's when the alarm bells went off, and they sent word to another close by fort to fire but they were, smalls and his family and other crew members, were too far away at that point to be hit. host: they were never fired on. guest: they were. we don't know for sure. they were too far away to be
hit. i don't know if the confederates fired on them, but they attempted to. host: so he's on-board the planter. he's got 16 people on there. they have come past fort sumter. when do they -- when are they seen by the union side, and how do they tell the union side that -- they see a confederate ship coming. why did they not fire on them? guest: right. smalls was more worried about this stage of the journey than he was about getting through the confederate harbor. he was in a confederate ship going straight towards a union fleet, and they would have assumed they were attacking them in some way. so he devised to have a white bed sheet on-board and as soon as they passed fort sumter they lowered the confederate flag and the south carolina flag and hoisted a bed sheet. host: was it light yet? guest: it was just getting light which was part of his plan.
he wanted to be seen, but there was fog that night. that was hindering them. so they weren't sure. it was a huge risk. in fact, we know from the union records that the captain of the onward, which was the ship that was closest to them, had the guns ready and was preparing to fire, and at the last second, he saw the white sheet and said stop. it was a very close call, and there was another close call. once they actually got towards the ship, i think smalls and the crew were so rattled, they weren't listening to what the union members were telling them, and they were telling them to go a different way than they were in approaching the ship. and once again the captain said, stop, or i'll blow you out of the water. that jolted them to attention and got them reacting appropriately. but it must have just been an incredible few moments, at any second they could have lost everything. host: so what happened to smalls and the family once they were in union hands? what happened to the planter? guest: well, as soon as smalls
got to the union ship, he was immediately taken to samuel du pont, who was in charge of the whole south atlantic blockading squad, and he said, i need this guy. he's valuable. he's a great pilot. we need him. and so he actually made smalls a civilian boat pilot for the union, and he did that because if he had enlisted smalls, african-americans, particularly former slaves, were only allowed at that point in the war to be classified as a boy, which was the lowest classification. so we think that the other crew members were enlisted as boys, but smalls was not enlisted. he became a civilian boat pilot and immediately started working for the union. but word got out in the north immediately, and he was considered a hero almost overnight. suddenly harper's weekly and all these other publications were
touting him as the hero, and because he was the master mind behind the plan, he was really given the major kudos, above the other men. they were included in the story, but it was definitely smalls who was elevated to hero stature. host: where did they live then? >> well, they ended up staying in the area. working for the union from port royal. but smalls was given an incredible opportunity that he embraced as he embraced all the opportunities he was given to speak on behalf of the port royal experiment, which was something that was going on after beaufort and port royal was captured, the whites fled which is not something the union had anticipated. 10,000 slaves were left behind and were now in the care of the government. the union army, which was already running low on food. they needed help, so the port royal people were already asking for donations in the north, but
a reverend french got the idea that smalls would make a great example as a speaker. he could go around the north and talk to people and help raise awareness and money, and that's what he did. he spent a few months doing, and in the course of that he was sent to washington where he met with abraham lincoln and several members of his cabinet. and actually brought back the first orders authorizing a black regiment from the secretary of war to beaufort. host: how many blacks in both in the union and confederacy were actually fighting during the civil war? guest: i believe there were about 180,000. at this point they had not been allowed. the navy had always allowed blacks to enlist. the army had not. host: in the north only? guest: yes. yes. now, that's something i've certainly -- i certainly there -- think there is some debate on whether there were blacks fighting for the confederacy, but in general, it was mostly
northern blacks. and so, yeah. smalls, by bringing this authorization, you know, it started an enormous swell of people enlisting, frederick douglas was out there encouraging people to enlist. he had sons who enlisted. it was critical. the role that african-americans ended up playing in the war was critical to the union. host: what tripped it for the union to allow blacks to come into the service? guest: i think it was part necessity. part, there were enough people out there, you know, people pushing for a long time for this to happen. but the union also started seeing that the south had an advantage because they had slave labor, and so when the war first started, they had, slaves were building fortifications. they were doing lots of work. they were giving the south an advantage, and, and one of the things that smalls did through his heroic act was he convinced a lot of people in the north
that african-americans were willing to fight for their freedom. it's hard to imagine, but at that point, a lot of people questioned whether they would. and that's one of the major contributions of smalls is that he became this focal point for people to see that african-americans were willing to do whatever for their freedom, to take any chance, and they would fight for the union. so i think it was -- it was a combination of a lot of things, but i think certainly smalls' role was definitely important in changing that. host: so when you began to research for this book, where did you go? guest: national archives. great resource. smalls for years fought for his pension, because he was not enlisted, of course -- he was not enlisted because he would not have been allowed to be a pilot at the time, but he certainly served as a member of the union and should have been given a pension for that. so he fought for years. so his pension records were very
helpful at the archives. also, of course, going to charleston and beaufort, going to some of their archives, state archives in columbia. talking to a lot of experts. you know, it's always good to cast a wide net and see what you can find. host: there is a man named michael moore who is the great, great grandson of robert smalls, and here he is doing a ted talk back in 2015. >> this is a picture of his house with the money. one of the main things he did with his award money is he actually bought the house that his master had, so he bought the big house, and so i always, exactly, there is great poetry in former slave going and buying the big house, but what also was particular special after the war, his former master had died.
and his former master's wife, who at the time was mentally and physically ill, came back to the house thinking that it was still her house and that she was still, you know, the woman of the house, and robert embraced her and brought her in and cared for her through her remaining days. he even allowed her to sort of stay in the master bedroom where she had always lived, thinking that she was still the woman of the house. host: do you have any idea why robert smalls did that for mrs. mcgee? guest: robert smalls was an incredibly forgiving man, and he was a brilliant man, and he would always surprise people and so, you know, this is one of these stories that, you know, michael and his mother, helen, have been so incredibly supportive of my project with this book, but it's interesting, when you hear stories from the family and then you go and try to verify, of course, whenever you possibly can.
this is a story i had heard several times about smalls bringing the family to his home. the best documentation i could find for it was one of the missionaries who came from the north to help the former slaves in port royal wrote about it and she said robert had in the 1870's paid for the mcgee family's rail fare to charleston and allowed them to stay in the home. the story you will hear on the carriage rides in beaufort is she lived there for the rest of her life. my understanding from laura's diary was for a short amount of time the family came. it's still extraordinary that robert smalls would allow the family to come back to the home where he had once been enslaved. he helped pay for -- he paid for their trip to the house. and he ended up, when the family refused to eat with him, he ended up serving them separately in their own table. he was just a remarkable man.
i don't know too many people who would have done that. now, some people say, well, was he a mcgee family member? robert's father is not known. i tend to think smalls was not mcgee's child only because, lydia, his mother, was raising henry mcgee for so long. but regardless of that, smalls was an incredibly warm, caring person, who wanted to help people, and he did not let what he had been through during the war stop him from helping the mcgee family. he ended up helping one of the mcgee sons get into college and, he did some extraordinary things. >> the michael moore runs the international african-american museum in charleston. what is it like? guest: well, it's being built right now. so they are raising funds for it but it sound phenomenal, and he's the perfect person to lead
it. i recently met him and asked him what it was like to walk through the streets of charleston knowing your great grandfather was enslaved in the city. it's surreal, but it's an honor to keep smalls' memory alive. michael and his mother have done a great job of preserving smalls' legacy. his mother created a traveling exhibit. they are very concerned with protecting smalls' name and reputation and getting his story out there. host: the chair of the university of texas history department, back in 2012, was marvin delaney. here he is talking about another period right after the civil war and i want you to expound on this. >> the general consensus in the early 20th century, almost up to the 1960s, was that reconstruction was one of the worst periods in the history of this country. that reconstruction was characterized by corrupt
carpetbaggers and scalawags and ignorant negroes. the so-called big negroes who served in the governments of the south had made three very important contributions. they had brought about the first democratic government in the south. they had established the first free public schools. and they had passed new social legislation. and as many of you know, robert smalls did all three of those things. host: what was reconstruction, and how long did it last? guest: a lot of people don't realize that reconstruction sort of began with the port royal experiment, which was the efforts to help these 10,000 abandoned slaves in port royal and the beaufort area, because reconstruction was the country trying to rebuild itself after the war. and having to incorporate slaves
into -- our whole world as free people, i mean, these were people who were kept from any education. they had never been allowed to care for themselves, and suddenly they were free and what does that mean? so beaufort is really in many ways the heart of reconstruction because this is where the port royal experiment happened. and then, of course, after the war, robert moved back to beaufort and really ended up finding a voice in politics, and it was at a time when a lot of blacks were being voted into political power, and he was -- he took advantage of that and ended up doing a lot. he actually helped set up the first free and compulsory education system in south carolina. so it was a time of rebuilding. it was a time where we were trying to figure out how we were going to move forward after the legacy of slavery, which of
course, we're still trying to do today. host: did he ever get any education? guest: yes. education was huge for robert smalls. during the war, he went to philadelphia for several months while the planter was being refurbished. he was charged with going up there and seeing, watching over the refurbishment, and during that time he took advantage of the extra time he had and hired a tutor. then it's thought throughout his life he actually worked with other tutors, so he was doing the best to educate himself and then as his children grew up he sent them to the best schools that he possibly could. in fact, when his daughter, elizabeth, who was on-board the planter when he escaped, when she was 13 years old, she read the declaration of independence at a fourth of july celebration in beaufort. the audience was mostly former slaves, and it was a huge moment because they saw this was an opportunity, their children were now going to learn to read and write. their children were going to bed
-- be educated. they had futures they never could have imagined before. so education was critical to robert smalls' life. host: you said that he was five terms in the u.s. house of representatives. member of the republican party at the time. what's the bribery story? guest: well, smalls was elected in 1875 to his first term in the house of representatives. two years later, he was accused of taking funds while in a state legislative role. it was, i think, it was a time, it was a time when people were scared, scared of blacks having more power. there was a lot going on, and i think this was -- the charges were an attempt to ruin his credibility. he was eventually pardoned, but it was not before he was sentenced to three years hard labor, and his conviction was basically based on a felon's testimony. host: did he serve the hard labor for three years? >> no, he served three days in jail, but was pardoned, in part
because the south carolina governor created a deal that robert smalls wanted no part of. he actually wanted the court case to go to the supreme court where he could have his say and prove his name, prove his innocence. but was never given that opportunity because the deal was made in order to, i think, free some -- i think it was some redshirts, which were the name for these very white racist fanatics in the south at the time. host: at the time, there were a number of blacks elected as republicans from the south in reconstruction. when did that all end? when did reconstruction fall apart? guest: that's a very good question. it's not my area of expertise. but i would say that we saw the height of the power in the 1870's, 1880's, and then after
that it started changing. one of the things that i found so shocking in my research is i did not understand the length that the southern states had gone to reinstate slavery in all but name after the war. so there was a lot of violence going on. smalls certainly faced numerous death threats throughout his political career. he had a unique position in the fact that he was, because his mother had grown up on a plantation and spoke gullah, the local language of all the slaves from west africa, they had to have a language that they all understood, and this became gullah. he could talk with a lot of the former slaves in south carolina, and he could talk to the whites who were trying to regain their power, so he acted often as a bridge between the white and black communities. but it was -- it was a tough road, and as we saw, you know, with the jim crow laws and everything else, we had a lot of backsliding. host: stephen weiss, curator at
paris island museum, someone i know you interviewed for your book and also he's written about it, but here he is talking about robert smalls. >> two individuals that are associated with the sea islands around port royal, robert smalls, obviously, a native, another individual who comes down and is at penn center to help plan his strategy in the 1960's, both are very articulate. both are very well known for their speeches. if nothing else, at least a lot of robert smalls' speeches are written down and are wonderful things. he has wonderful sense of humor, in the 1895 convention, and such, when he makes comments back at pitchfork ben tillman. both are extremely brave. smalls never went around armed after the civil war. there were threats against him. he once commented, when you have faced down an eight inch
confederate cannon, these little pistols mean nothing to you. both were pacifists. host: how does stephen weiss fit into all of this? guest: he is the most knowledgeable person about the civil war charleston area you will ever meet. he and larry roland wrote a three volume history of beaufort. which is fascinating and has everything you could ever want to know about the area in it, but steve was a great resource, he and larry read the manuscript, gave insights, feedback, pointed me to the right people to talk to. incredibly helpful throughout the whole process. host: whatever happened to the planter? the ship? guest: unfortunately in the 1870's, she ended up sinking long after smalls had said goodbye to her. after the war, when steamers weren't needed as much, the union actually put her up for auction. and interestingly enough, ferguson, who was the original owner, wanted the planter back. he was determined to have it. i think it was symbolic to him
in some way. host: and he was a southerner. guest: he was a southerner. he tried to get it back the first time the boat went up for auction, but the government figured out who he was and that he had leased the ship to the confederates, and they turned him down. but we think that he actually had someone else broker the deal for him when the ship went up for auction in baltimore a few months later. so, in 1866, ferguson had the ship back. 1866, 1867, and then about 10 years later, the ship was trying to tow another ship and she sank. parts of the planter were salvaged, but she was obviously no longer in operation. and smalls was said to have said, when he learned that it was like losing a member of his family. host: speaking of family, what
pplder than he? guest: unfortunately, hannah died fairly young. and they had, of course, two children that lived. they had a third, a young son who died during the war. several years later smalls married another woman, a school teacher from charleston, annie wig, and he had a son with her as well. so he had two wives. i think hannah often is overlooked as the hero in this story. unfortunately, we don't have a lot of records on hannah. i could only find one newspaper anything from hannah, and she was talking about how they had agreed if it looks like they were going to be captured, if they were attacked, when they were escaping, that they would all hold hands and jump overboard and drown rather than be recaptured and taken back to slavery. host: you say mr. smalls died when he was 75. what was the rest of his life like after being in the united states congress, and what was the impact of the bribery accusation? guest: yeah.
i don't think he ever fully recovered from that accusation. he ended up being re-elected, but it was never quite the same. he ended up becoming a customs collector in beaufort and spent many years doing that. but i think he really wanted to be back in d.c. making change, making people's lives better. but unfortunately, that was not the case. but he had a nice life. he, of course, as we saw from the video earlier, he ended up being able to buy the home he had once been enslaved in and that was so important to him, and one of my favorite quotes of his is about how he was so happy to be able to give that, leave that house for his children and his family. host: what did he die of? guest: complications from diabetes. host: where is he buried? guest: he's buried in beaufort at the tabernacle church which he was a member of in the last years of his life. they have a nice statue there, and he's buried beside his two
wives and one of his daughters. host: in your opinion, has the united states paid enough honor to him for what he did? guest: i don't think so. i think there is a recognition that's starting to happen about his contributions, in charleston. there are two markers now, historic markers, in downtown charleston that talk about the planter and mark robert smalls' contributions, but i think with this renewed interest in reconstruction, you know, there are several places in beaufort, that are part of the reconstruction monument now. there is more of, i think charleston in general and the whole country is embracing more of its african-american history and in doing that, i think robert smalls will get the recognition that he deserves. host: the name of the book is be free or die: the amazing story of robert smalls, escape from slavery to union hero, and our guest, cate lineberry. thank you for joining us. guest: thank you so much. [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit ncicap.org]
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