He’s a local legend and an important part of lowcountry and national history.
Even though he’s been gone for more than a century, Robert Smalls is back in the news in 2017, and his legacy up for debate, all thanks to a comedy show.
During his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” Sunday night, John Oliver discussed the confederate memorial and statue controversy. Specifically the idea of taking down Confederate statues and replacing them with what he called “worthy” people.
“Try not to think of this as a loss, because its a real opportunity… because if and when a plate becomes empty, that’s actually a huge chance for your area to honor someone who really deserves it,” said Oliver.
Oliver then pointed out some specific examples of those people.
“And I have some ideas for replacements to run by you. First Beaufort County, SC how about a giant statue of Robert Smalls here?” said Oliver unveiling his version of a Smalls statue. “He was born into slavery, he stole a Confederate boat and he sailed it to freedom and later served 5 terms in Congress, this guy is amazing.”
Officially In May 1862, Smalls was able to captain the cotton steamer Planter out through Charleston Harbor, fooling Confederate sentries and delivering the vessel into Union hands.
Smalls already has two schools named after him in Beaufort County, as well as the County Government building.
Oliver may have brought the idea to a National stage, but its something South Carolina lawmakers are already considering. Just last month Senators backed a proposal to add a Robert Smalls monument to the Statehouse grounds. The lawmakers were specific to say they didn’t plan to take down any of the 31 monuments and markers on or around the Statehouse grounds.
Reaction to the Comedian’s proposal from the people of Beaufort was mixed.
“I don’t think we should do away with our history at all. We have to learn from our history, whether its confederate history, Northern history or russian history.”
“I think maybe in addition, not replacing it.”
“That would be good.
“Why do you think it woul be good?”
“Because it would still be honoring him, Robert Smalls.”
“Fine put up Robert Smalls, I have no problem with that, he was a hero and same with the Confederates, heroes to some of us. Everybody wants us to be tolerable, right, then they should be tolerable too.”
“Replacing confederate statue with one of Robert Smalls instead.”
“He deserves one. We’ve got schools named after him the county building named after him. I think he’s worthy of a statue yes.”
“I don’t know that we need to replace the statues, you can move them all to a museum where history is studied. its not erasing history, history is written in textbooks, in forms. Statues idolize people.”
Adding a monument on the 18-acre Statehouse grounds is not common. The last one, the Law Enforcement Monument, was erected 11 years ago.
The Smalls statue would be paid by private donors, the senators said.
An African American History Monument was erected in 2001 as part of the compromise to move the Confederate flag from atop the Statehouse Dome to a spot next to the Confederate Monument outside the Statehouse. The Civil War banner was removed from the grounds all together in 2105 in the wake of the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at Emanual AME Church by a white supremacist.