Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
February is Black History Month, and before the month runs out I wanted to share a thought about it.
It’s an opportune time to gauge where we are these days in the celebration of our multiracial nation. This year, there has been much more interest in confronting racism, including a more open acknowledgement of the ways white privilege pervades our lives and the very fabric of our society. But during Black History Month, I believe it’s important to appreciate how African Americans are so much more than victims of racism. Certainly racism is the original sin of this nation, and has been used against African Americans and Indigenous peoples more than anyone else. But there is much to celebrate in the legacy of Black Excellence in the United States. There are countless stories of heroism, insight, creativity, and perseverance to tell—stories of well-known people like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, W. E. B. Dubois, Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson. And then there are folks who aren’t as well-known, like Hazel Scott and Beulah Mae Donald and Robert Smalls. I’ve written about Ms. Scott and Ms. Donald in the past, but not Mr. Smalls.
Robert Smalls was born in 1839 to Lydia Polite, a woman enslaved by Henry McKee. As a teenager he was hired out to various jobs in Charleston, South Carolina, eventually gaining increasing knowledge and responsibility working as a longshoreman, a sail maker, and eventually he was piloting ships. By the time he was 23, in 1862, he organized an escape for himself and 16 others by taking the Planter, the gunboat he was working on, past several forts, including Fort Sumter, and he delivered the boat to the Union Navy. Smalls gave to the Union not only the ship and the arms and property on it (including a Confederate code book), but he shared his substantial knowledge of Confederate troop movements and the mines he had planted in his enslavement.
Smalls went on to pilot several boats in several campaigns, and went to Washington, DC, with Methodist minister Mansfield French to persuade President Lincoln to permit Black men to fight for the Union. Soon after, an order permitted up to 5,000 African Americans to enlist in Union forces. Smalls himself was present in 17 major battles and engagements in the Civil War.
After the war, Smalls went back to his hometown of Beaufort. He purchased the house where he and his mother had been enslaved, and his family moved in. He also bought a 2-story building to use as a school. While his former master, Henry McKee, had passed away, McKee’s widow Jane Bond McKee faced poor mental and physical health later in life. Smalls allowed Mrs. McKee to move back into the house, and though she imagined that he was still enslaved to her, Smalls cared for her until her death.
Robert Smalls went on to enter politics. He was one of the founders of the South Carolina Republican Party, and in 1868 he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. There he helped to write their new constitution, and he was dedicated to provide free education to all children in the state, regardless of race, and authored legislation to establish its first public education system. Smalls
served in the US House of Representatives 1875-1879, 1882-1883, and 1884-1887. In addition, he contributed to the economic development of the Charleston area, starting a local railroad and publishing a local newspaper. Robert Smalls remained an influential leader in South Carolina until his death in 1915, having left behind a legacy of human rights, education, and entrepreneurship.
When we were preparing for WinterFest, Cyndie Crowell shared the great expense Trinity Presbyterian Church had to pay to eradicate the asbestos that got released when they worked on the preschool roof. They had to close down the preschool, pretty much take the rooms down to the studs, and rebuild the classrooms from scratch, and they went through the pain of hearing and responding to the great disappointment of the preschool’s staff and families. After listening to Cyndie’s tale of woe, another panelist, Stephen Robertson, suggested that asbestos is a good metaphor for racism. It’s hidden in nearly all our buildings, it takes an enormous cost and almost total demolition to remove it, and though it’s dangerous, we ignore it until it’s exposed. (It occurred to me that many have decided the most efficient way of dealing with asbestos is not to eradicate it, but just cover it over, because it’s so expensive and intrusive to really get it out.)
The happy ending is that the relationships were preserved, and the resulting classrooms were better than they were before—since they had to deconstruct the classrooms, they took this as an opportunity to rethink some things and make other improvements.
When we see the amazing contributions made by Black Americans even under the yoke of slavery and entrenched white privilege, perhaps we can seek to eradicate racism, no matter the cost and the lengths we must take, with the confidence that we will end up not only with stronger relationships and freedom from the threat of its deadly poisoning, but also we can build in a better new way of living and working together. And once the sin of racism is gone, we can’t even imagine the greater initiative, ingenuity and faithful leadership that will be liberated, for the benefit of everyone and to reflect the glory of God. Let it be so!