Robert Smalls House, Beaufort, South Carolina

photo by: Paul Keyserling

African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund

Robert Smalls House

  • Constructed: c. 1834
  • Location: Beaufort, South Carolina

Through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the National Trust is joining Congressman James E. Clyburn, Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray, and a growing coalition of local partners to advocate for public access of the Robert Smalls House. Our aim is to facilitate the inclusion of the home into the National Park Service system as part of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park so access by the public and interpretation of the legacy of Robert Smalls is protected.To secure this vision, the Action Fund has completed a Historic Structure Report that informs the long-term stewardship planning, and raised $2M to acquire the Robert Smalls House.

In a June 2023 opinion piece, Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, made the case for limited public access of Smalls’ home, a provision consistent with the current preservation easement.

Robert Smalls' Extraordinary Legacy

Born into slavery in 1839 in a small cabin behind 511 Prince Street in Beaufort, South Carolina, Robert Smalls came from humble beginnings to live an extraordinary life of courage and defiance against the odds of systemic oppression that were stacked against him as a Black man in the antebellum South.

Smalls’ story spans from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to today. At the age of 23, Smalls seized his freedom from enslavement at the height of the Civil War by commandeering a Confederate steamship. He liberated himself as well as six comrades and their families, and delivered a valuable ship and weaponry to the Union Army. His bravery earned him a cash reward, a Navy commission, and fame that launched a long, storied career. After the war, he chose to go back to Beaufort with his family, where he became a successful businessman, a five-term Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and one of the staunchest defenders of political and educational rights in the country.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1973, the Prince Street house was occupied by members of the Smalls family for more than 90 years. For the past two years, the current owners of the home, former Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling and his brother Paul, have provided highly controlled access to the home, allowing the National Park Service to bring groups of no more than 10 people into its yard, on the front porch, and inside two first-floor rooms to study the property. This has given the public the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by the profound legacy of Robert Smalls.

“My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of anyone. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”

Robert Smalls, speaking against the disenfranchisement of African Americans during the 1895 South Carolina constitutional convention.

Vision for the Future

The Reconstruction Era National Historical Park (RENHP) comprises four areas around Beaufort, South Carolina: Camp Saxon, Old Beaufort Firehouse, Darrah Hall, and Brick Baptist Church. Collectively, these sites engage and educate the public about a vital period in American history when millions of emancipated African Americans faced the incredible challenge of integration into the nation’s social, political, and labor systems.

The Robert Smalls House will bring a new and powerfully personal dimension of strength and achievement to the public experience of the RENHP. While the National Park Service currently conducts walking tours around the neighborhood and historic district surrounding the Smalls House, direct access to the property, including its interiors and grounds, would enhance the park’s interpretive programs by exploring key themes and turning points from America’s Reconstruction Era in vivid context through the life and legacy of Robert Smalls.

Robert Smalls is represented with collections and statuary at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and has been honored recently with the naming of the USS Robert Smalls by the U.S. Navy. With multiple biopics in the works to portray Smalls’ incredible life and story, Americans are eager to learn more and experience an authentic, personal connection with his character, courage, and conviction. Inclusion in the RENHP will preserve and make a public treasure of the place where Robert Smalls was born enslaved, returned to live with his family as a free man, and died with the honor, dignity, and enduring legacy of a true American hero.

Preserve the Robert Smalls House as a vital part of our public heritage and facilitate its transfer of ownership to the National Park Service as part of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

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