21 June 2017

Heritage Walking Tour: Robert Smalls, 1839-1915


Harper's Weekly, 14 June 1862- BDC

Beaufort's native son, Robert Smalls, was born into slavery in 1839. His relationship with his master's family is well documented in Yearning to Breathe Free by Andrew Billingsley (2007) and his political activities are well documented in Gullah Statesman by Edward Miller, Jr. His audacious plan to steal The Planter steamer and deliver the vessel to the Union Navy is excitingly recounted in Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls ... by Cate Lineberry (2017).  He was a man of daring and a masterful politician. Smalls served in the South Carolina Legislature, the United States Congress, and was a Customs official almost to his death in 1915. He was an exceptional man in an exceptional time.

You can learn more about his amazing story by following the links on our Wordpress blog entry about him and/or by checking out some of the materials listed there. Attend Lineberry's presentations on June 22. If you are in downtown Beaufort and are able to walk 1 to 2 miles without difficulty, then perhaps you will want to take this heritage walking tour. It is based on one created by Penn Center in 2005 for a Beaufort County Library/Penn Center co-sponsored seminar near the release of Adrina Ifill's documentary, Congressman Robert  Smalls: A Patriot's Journey from Slavery to Capitol Hill




Stop #1: 911 CRAVEN STREET Robert Smalls Bust and Burial Site in the Tabernacle Baptist Church Cemetery

A bust of Robert Smalls sculpted by Marion Talmage Etheredge sits next to Tabernacle Church. Although a founding member of First African Baptist Church, Smalls was interred between his two wives, Hannah Jones (1826-1883) and Annie Elizabeth Wigg (1856-1895) in this churchyard.  The monument is inscribed with an excerpt from his speech contesting the SC Constitution of 1895 in which black citizens were stripped of many of the rights they had under Reconstruction: “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.” (1895) 

Robert Smalls Bust by Marion Talmage Etheredge

Stop #2: 920 BAY STREET “Abraham Cockcroft House / Beaufort Customs House”

This building was constructed as a residence about 1857. The Greek Revival styled front of the house faces the Beaufort River. The structure looked over wharves and docks on the river making it an ideal location for the Beaufort Customs House.  Robert Smalls worked here as the Collector of Customs from 1889 until his retirement in 1912. William Joseph Thomas bought the building in 1932 converting the Bay Street fa├žade into retail and office space.
Customs House, 920 Bay Street as it appeared in 1860s (Beaufort County Library)
On your way along Bay Street as you head towards New Street, you will pass some buildings that Robert Smalls would have passed himself as he walked home from the Customs House. Linger at the base of the Woods Bridge at Cannon Park to enjoy the view. If it's low tide, breathe in the wonderfully evocative smell of pluff mud.

Stop #3: 414 NEW STREET “William Johnson House”

Samuel J. Bampfield bought this two storied frame house around the time of his marriage to Smalls’s daughter Elizabeth on April 24, 1877. The structure sits on a tabby foundation and may have been built as early as the 1770s based on architectural studies done in 2006. Bampfield participated in the political affairs of the town and county during the Reconstruction era serving as a state representative, newspaper editor, Clerk of Court and postmaster.  After her husband’s death in 1899, Elizabeth served as Postmistress until 1908 after which she became secretary to Rossa B. Cooley, head of Penn School. In 1910 Elizabeth and her children moved to Charlotte, NC where she died at age 101 in 1959. She never remarried. Samuel, Elizabeth and seven of their children are buried in the Mercy Cemetery at the corner of Boundary and Lafayette Streets on US Highway 21.

Stop #4: 606 NORTH STREET “Whipper House”

Copyright undetermined. Not a BDC image.

Both Smalls and prominent Black attorney and politician William J. Whipper owned this antebellum property at separate periods after the Civil War. Whipper attended the SC Constitutional convention of 1868, served as a State Representative 1868-1872 and again from 1875-1876, and was Beaufort County Probate Judge, 1876- 1888. Smalls and he became political rivals beginning with the election of 1872.  After arguing vigorously against black disenfranchisement during the SC Constitutional Convention of 1895, Whipper refused to sign the document as did all the other Beaufort County delegates, including Robert Smalls. Whipper died in Beaufort in 1907.  It is believed that both his wife, Francis Rollin Whipper and he are buried in unmarked graves in the Wesley United Methodist Church yard at the corner of Prince and West Streets.


Stop #5: 601 NEW STREET “First African Baptist Church”

First African Baptist Church was built in the Gothic Revival style circa 1861 by the Baptist Church of Beaufort for its black members who far outnumbered the white congregants. The black congregation took over the building in 1863. Robert Smalls helped found the congregation and attended services. Needing funds to repair Civil War damage in their own church, the Baptist Church of Beaufort sold the structure to the congregation’s deacons for $300 in 1868, at a considerable discount. The building “was enlarged and beautified” before 1873. Smalls family weddings and funerals were held here.



Stop #6: 511 PRINCE STREET “Henry McKee House / Robert Smalls House”


Likely built around 1810, this house was owned by the McKee family at the time when Robert Smalls was born into slavery on this property in 1839. Working as a crewman aboard the steamer Planter in Charleston in 1862, Robert Smalls earned freedom for his family by stealing the steamship and delivering it to the Union Blockading Squadron. Small purchased this house at a tax sale in occupied Beaufort in 1863. The DeTreville Family who had purchased the property in 1855 sued to regain title to the house after the Civil War. The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Smalls thus deciding the validity of all the wartime property tax sales in South Carolina. Robert Smalls lived in this house throughout his busy political career as state legislator, state senator and five-term U.S. Congressman. He died in the house on February 23, 1915. It remained in the Smalls family until 1940. The house was added to the National Register in 1975.

Stop #7: 708 EAST STREET “The Tree House”

This property gets its nickname from its situation around a beautiful great oak tree. The structure originally served as a home on the Emmon’s Farm located at the corner of Carteret and Boundary streets. Smalls moved it to East Street in 1910. The wing was added by a later owner. 


Stop #8: 508 DUKE Street "The Smalls-Nash Cottage"

This structure was built by Robert Smalls as a rental property in 1890. It has two fireplaces placed back-to-back inside. It may have served as a wash house. Dolly Nash, a direct descendant of Robert Smalls, and her husband John willed the property to Historic Beaufort Foundation (HBF) in 2006. HBF renovated and restored the structure in 2007. 

Tombstone at Mercy Cemetery, Find-A-Grave website
 Stop #9: 715 NEW STREET “Samuel Bampfield House”

Robert Smalls purchased this circa 1830 property for Bampfield to house his large family. Originally only 2 rooms over 2 rooms, extensions were added to the rear and double-porches were added to the front of the house.

Stop #10: CORNER OF CARTERET AND WASHINGTON STREETS Former “William Fuller House” (razed) 

Colonel William Fuller built a house on these grounds in 1829. The Beaufort School Board of Education purchased the property in 1867 to open a public school for blacks. The deed had a proviso that the property always be used by citizens of Beaufort for school purposes. The board was mostly African American and consisted of Robert Smalls, Jonathan J. Wright, William J. Whipper, Richard H. Gleaves, London S. Langley, Walter Fuller, Isaac Simmons, Prince Rivers, R.F. Bythewood, Rev. Arthur Waddell, J.J. Cohen, George Waddell, and J.C. Rivers. In 1925 the Board of Education decided to raze the deteriorated black school and build a new school for black students to be called Robert Smalls High School at another site. The property is part of the University of South Carolina Historic Beaufort Campus complex today. 


OPTIONAL Stop #11: It's probably too far for most folks to walk, but the Beaufort County ROBERT SMALLS GOVERNMENT COMPLEX sits on the CORNER OF BOUNDARY STREET AND RIBAUT ROAD on the site of the former Robert Smalls Schools complex. When the public school for black students located in the former William Fuller house closed, a new school was built in 1924 at the intersection of Ribaut Road and Boundary Street. Named for Robert Smalls, this school complex at various times included both primary and secondary education facilities for black students. This school integrated as did all Beaufort County schools in 1965. The Robert Smalls High School was razed in the mid-1980s to make way for the current Beaufort County government administration buildings. A new integrated Robert Smalls Middle School opened in 1985 on W.K. Alston Drive, named after the longest serving principal of Robert Smalls High School, W. Kent Alston. Alston was principal of the Robert Smalls High School from 1938 until 1962.
(Based on a Penn Center / Beaufort County Library document 2005)
Contact us for paper copies of an abbreviated tour of the walk. The Research Room will be open Thursday, 9 am to 2 pm and on Friday, 9 am to 5 pm. We'll close early on Thursday, June 22 because of staff shortage while we have a local history program at Bluffton Branch.

Author Cate Lineberry by Joy Lynn Photography

Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls's Escape from Slavery to Union Hero with author Cate Lineberry


Thurs., June 22 at 11 am - BDC@ Beaufort Branch Library
Thurs., June 22 at 3 pm - BDC@ Bluffton Branch Library 
 Limited space. Free tickets available 1 hour before the start of each program. No reservations.

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