City Directories and History: Built in 1843, the Robert Smalls House is a good example of a large frame house with a two-story portico. Robert Smalls, the hero of the Civil War, state legislator, U.S. Congressman from South Carolina during Reconstruction, and customs collector for the Port of Beaufort, was born into slavery in 1839 in Beaufort. He lived in the John McKee household until 1851, when he was hired out by his master to Charleston, where he lived until the outbreak of the Civil War. During the war, he distinguished himself first as the “abductor” of the boat Planter, an incident which catapulted him to national fame and attention, and as a guide for the Union ships attacking the sea islands. He became a folk hero and natural candidate for public office during the years of black political influence that followed the war.
He was elected first to the state Constitutional Convention of 1868, the state assembly (1868-1870), and then the state senate (1870-1874). He continued his fight here to use legislation to buttress the rights recently gained by the freedmen. He made himself a sort of watchdog for his constituents and race, in the face of mounting opposition and increasing hostility of white South Carolinians. In 1874, Smalls was elected to the U.S. Congress. He served as customs collector for Beaufort from 1889 to 1913, and died in 1915. Smalls purchased the house in which he had lived as a slave at a tax sale in 1863. He and his descendants occupied the property for approximately ninety years. The original structure has been considerably altered. Listed in the National Register May 30, 1974; Designated a National Historic Landmark May 30, 1974. [Courtesy of the SC Dept. of Archives and History]
“Henry McKee (1811-1879) built this two-story frame house on “the Point” in 1834. Resting high off the ground on brick piers, McKee’s house is in the Beaufort style. Double verandas are each supported by six square posts with a turned balustrade. Windows in the five-bay-wide house are six over six (6/6) lights with exterior blinds.
McKee was educated at the Partridge Academy in Connecticut. He married Jane Monroe Bold in 1836, and by 1860 had 105 slaves at “Ashdale” Plantation on Ladies Island.
In August 1839 Robert Smalls was born a slave in a cabin behind the McKees’ house. Smalls sailed the Confederate gunboat “The Planter” out of Charleston Harbor on May 13, 1862, and turned it over to Federal officers. He became an army captain and National Guard general. Smalls was a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives (1868-70) and the South Carolina Senate (1870-75), and he was elected to the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th and 49th Congresses as a Republican. From 1897 to 1913 Robert Smalls was Collector of the port of Beaufort.
Around 1855 Henry McKee sold his house to the DeTreville family. In 1863 Robert Smalls bought the house at a tax sale. Following the war the DeTrevilles sued to regain title of the house. The suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held Smalls’ title valid. This served as the test case in South Carolina for all wartime tax sales.”
Information from: Historic Resources of the Lowcountry, The Lowcountry Council of Government, Cynthia C. Jenkins, Preservation Planner – Published, 1979
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