This Day in History

Nov. 3, 1874: Robert Smalls Elected

Time Periods: Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1876
Themes: African American, Reconstruction, Democracy & Citizenship, Laws & Citizen Rights

My race needs no special defense for the past history of them and this country. It proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life. — Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls. Source: Matthew Brady, Library of Congress

On Nov. 3, 1874, Robert Smalls was elected to Congress as a representative from South Carolina.

Born into slavery in 1839, Smalls freed himself and his family during the Civil War when he absconded with a Confederate warship in Charleston Harbor and sailed it past enemy ships and fortifications to reach the Union blockade.

After becoming the first African American to captain a vessel in the U.S. Navy, Smalls entered local politics and helped establish schools and social services for freedpeople in his hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina.

He would serve five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Read more about Robert Smalls at and introduce his story to children with the picture book, Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story.