Monday, June 27, 2016

Robert Smalls: Former Slave Turned Congressman

Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was one of the most influential African-American men to fight for freedom during the Civil War. He was born a slave and died as something of a national hero. His bravery and intelligence put him in the position to prove that not only were African-Americans capable of fighting for their own freedom, but that they were the equals of any white man who did the same.

Robert Smalls was born in South Carolina on April 5, 1839, in the back yard of the home where his mother was kept as a slave. Because his mother was a slave, he was born into slavery, even though he was the son of a white man. Who that white man was is not certain. He may or may not have been the boy’s own owner. Robert worked as a house slave until the age of twelve, when he was sent to Charleston to seek out paying work.

While in Charleston, Robert Smalls was able to find odd jobs as a laborer. He was allowed to keep one dollar of his wages. The rest was sent to his owner. However, when Robert turned eighteen, he was able to make a deal with his owner and from then on, he only had to send the man fifteen dollars per month. Smalls also met his wife, Hannah, while living in Charleston. He married her on December 24, 1856. He was seventeen years old. She was thirty-two.

Soon after Robert Smalls married Hannah, the couple had a child. Hannah was still the property of Samuel Kingman and therefore, so was their child. Robert saved up $800 and purchased his family from Mr. Kingman (if you can imagine such a thing as having to buy your own family). Not long after, they welcomed a son into the world, Robert Smalls Jr.

The same year that Smalls’ son was born (1861), Robert began working in the trade that would change his life forever, He became a deckhand on a transport steamer called Planter. He was soon promoted to pilot. In this capacity, he learned a lot about the Charleston harbor and about captaining a ship, both of which would come in handy the following year.

On May 13, 1862, the Planter’s officers were asleep onshore in Charleston when Robert Smalls and his family boarded the ship in the night. Also, on board was a crew of twelve slaves. With the help of the crew, Robert Smalls bravely took command of the ship and sailed it right out of the harbor, under the noses of all of the Confederates in the area. He then took the ship to the Commanding Officer of the Onward, a Union ship. Admiral Samuel DuPont accepted the ship as a gift for the Union, which was how Smalls and his men had presented it. They were all rewarded monetarily for their bravery by Abraham Lincoln.

In the fall of 1862, Robert Smalls, now working for the United States Navy, went to Washington, D.C. with a colleague. He and his colleague met with Secretary of War Stanton and President Lincoln and asked if they could recruit 5,000 black men for the cause. They were soon given permission to complete the task.

Robert Smalls became the first African-American to captain a United States Navy ship on December 1, 1863. His wife gave birth to a daughter that very same day. He served in this capacity for the remainder of the Civil War. After the war, he returned to the state in which he had been born and enslaved. He came back to South Carolina with a new found freedom and the intellect to do something with it.

Smalls became a major general in the South Carolina militia soon after his return. He served in the North Carolina Senate from 1868 to 1870. He was elected to Congress in 1875 and reelected five times. Following his time with Congress, he became a U.S. Customs Collector in South Carolina. While employed in this capacity, he lived in the very Beaufort home in which he and his mother had served as slaves. However, this time around, he was the master of the house. He passed away at the age of 75, on February 23, 1916.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Virginia Hall: World War II Spy

Hall receives the Distinguished
Service Cross
Virginia Hall was a spy for the U.S. and England during World War II. She conducted undercover operations that assisted the resistance in France and she aided in sabotage missions near the end of the war. She is known for being brave, resilient and intelligent. Despite her gender and a significant disability, she never walked away from her chosen profession.

Virginia Hall was born on April 6, 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was the youngest daughter of theater owner Edwin Lee Hall and his wife, Barbara. Virginia’s early life was rather typical of a child of relatively wealthy parents. She attended Roland Park Country School and then decided that she wanted to study language in college. She first attended Radcliffe College. She went on to enroll in Bernard College and took classes there from 1924 to 1926. She became fluent in German, French and Italian.

Virginia Hall got her first government job in 1931. She went to Warsaw, Poland to work as a clerk at the American Embassy. While working in this capacity, she traveled to Tallin, Estonia, Vienna, Austria and Izmir, Turkey. Virginia was hunting in Turkey when she accidentally dropped her shotgun, which discharged into her foot. By the time medical help arrived, the wound was gangrenous. Her leg was amputated, and she was fitted with a wooden one.

Virginia Hall did not want to give up her work with the government, but the State Department had a policy that did not allow them to employ people with amputated limbs. She resigned in May of 1939. She went to work in France with the French Ambulance Service Unit. She had to leave the country when the Nazis invaded in May of 1940. She went from France to England, where she began working as a clerk at the embassy there.

While Virginia Hall was working in England, she was recruited for the Special Operations Executive. The SOE was a British group designed to infiltrate countries that were under the control of the Nazis and conduct spy operations, among other things, from the inside. The SOE sent her back to France. There she pretended to be a reporter for the New York Post while staying in Vichy. What she was really doing was aiding the organization of French resistance movements. She later went to Lyons and stayed there until 1942 when the Nazis began searching for her.

From France, Virginia Hall traveled to Madrid, an arduous journey done largely on foot. This must have been quite a trying task for a woman with one leg. Once she got set up in Madrid, she resumed her work as a spy. This time, she posed as a Chicago Times reporter. She disliked being there and asked her superiors if she might return to France. They sent to her back to England instead where she received further training. At the close of her training, she was moved to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services.

The OSS sent Virginia Hall back to France. This time she operated out of Haute-Loire. The Nazis had not forgotten the “woman with a limp,” however, which perhaps the OSS should have anticipated. Hall had to outsmart the Gestapo to avoid getting caught. Nonetheless, she managed to assist the resistance in the area and be the first person to report the change in location of the German General Staff Headquarters from Lyons to Le Puy to the Allies. In August of 1944, she became part of a team controlling three battalions of French forces. They were charged with sabotaging enemy communications. Virginia Hall and her comrades were successful.

Following her brave efforts in France, the OSS' European Theater Commander, Colonel James R. Forgan, nominated Virginia Hall for the Distinguished Service Cross. She was awarded the medal in 1945. Six years later, at the age of 45, Virginia Hall enlisted in the CIA. She worked for the CIA until her retirement in 1966. She passed away in 1982 at the Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Washington, D.C. She was buried in the Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, Maryland.