Op-Ed | Charleston, South Carolina | June 9, 2023

Commentary: Beaufort’s Robert Smalls House Must Be Allowed to Tell His Story

Published in The Post and Courier

Published in The Post and Courier.

Robert Smalls is an American hero, one Beaufort can proudly claim as its own. His antebellum home in downtown Beaufort stands as a monument to one man’s extraordinary journey from enslavement to citizenship.

Smalls was born into slavery in 1839 and grew up in the house at 511 Prince St. owned by his enslaver, Henry McKee. After a heroic military career, Smalls bought the house where he was born enslaved. He lived there for 51 years, until his death in1915, and the house remained in his family until it was sold by his descendants in the 1950s.

For the past two years, the current owners of the Robert Smalls House, 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 ofno 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.

Unfortunately, the future of this historic landmark is in jeopardy.

The Historic Beaufort Foundation, which holds an easement on the building’s exterior, contends that the current level of access violates the easement. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Limited tours do not interfere with the residential use of the property as required by the easement, and the tours are consistent with the public access provisions of the easement. Regrettably, the group’s lawsuit against the owners misses the mark.

As the executive director of the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, I know the importance of protecting the homes, churches and neighborhoods where history was made, while also safeguarding the character and integrity of historic architecture. I also understand our ethical mandate as professionals to facilitate access to places where the public can learn from and be inspired by those who shaped American history.

Rather than fighting a costly legal battle, let’s work together so generations can draw wisdom from Smalls’ ideals at his home, the meaning of freedom as symbolized by the purchase of this house, and the hopes of the man who helped establish public education for all children in South Carolina. Realizing this benefit means an effective balance between protection and education. The alternative — restricting well-managed access to the history within — risks losing the benefit of learning from this great man’s imprint on American democracy and risks perpetuating the idea that preservation is only for a privileged few.

That’s why we have completed a Historic Structure Report on the property and raised $1.5 million toward a $2 million goal to transfer the Robert Smalls House to the National Park Service as part of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park.

After all, the Robert Smalls House is more than a building and garden. It is an incredible opportunity for our nation to tell the full American story, one that is compelling in its glory and its pain.

Smalls’ story spans from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow to today. As a 23-year-old, Smalls seized his freedom from enslavement at the height of the Civil War by commandeering a Confederate steamship. He liberated himself, 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.

That is an American story that deserves to be told in the Robert Smalls House.

In 2023, the Navy renamed the guided missile cruiser Chancellorsville as the Robert Smalls. Last month, Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bipartisan bill establishing the annual Robert Smalls Day. All 46 S.C. senators have proposed displaying Smalls’ portrait in the Senate chamber, and a House bill has been proposed to erect a statue of the great patriot on the Statehouse grounds.

While these commemorative steps are an excellent start, we are fortunate that the Robert Smalls House still stands as an authentic monument central to national and local efforts celebrating the man in the place he called home.

We ask the Beaufort community to join us, Congressman James Clyburn, Mayor Stephen Murray, the Keyserlings, the Penn Center and a growing coalition to protect access to this American hero’s home. We must ensure that everyone can experience firsthand this tangible evidence of Robert Smalls’ life and legacy.

Let’s not let this opportunity go to waste in Beaufort. Instead, let’s come together to support culturally conscious and inclusive preservation.

Brent Leggs is executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
SavingPlaces.org | @savingplaces

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