Robert Smalls escaped enslavement

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The Escape of Robert Smalls: A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery

by | May 20, 2023 | Biographies | 1 comment

Robert Smalls Bravely Escaped Enslavement by Stealing a Boat 

I think every week we read a book about a person with a story I either never learned about in school or didn’t learn this part of their story. 

This week, that person was Robert Smalls in The Escape of Robert Smalls: A Daring Voyage Out of Slavery by Jehan Jones-Radgowski and Poppy Kang. 

Robert Smalls was born enslaved.  And on May 12, 1862, he took a chance on himself and sailed his family, crew, and their families to freedom at a Union-occupied fort in South Carolina. This riveting story details how he prepared for his escape and describes his family’s journey to freedom.

While this story focuses on the night of their escape, it’s the Afterward that I found most fascinating. 

After risking his life and the lives of his family and friends in hope of a better life lived in freedom, Robert Smalls not only survived, but served in the Navy for the Union. After the war was over, he went back and bought the home of his enslaver, which is just the most incredible power move. 

He eventually became a State Senator, was accused of taking a bribe while in office, and received a pardon. None of this was mentioned in the book.  



Humans should never be owned by other humans. One major theme of this book is how that understanding burned so deeply inside Robert Smalls that he chose to risk everything in pursuit of freedom. It took intense planning and insane bravery to risk capture and death to steal a whole ship and sail for a chance of living free, but he and his crew took the chance anyway, and it paid off for them.  


The language of The Escape of Robert Smalls is wonderful. I have noticed that newer books have moved away from calling people “slaves” to “enslaved people,” which recognizes the humanity of the people who were treated like property to be bought, sold, traded, and discarded. 

It might seem like a small difference to people who are used to writing off big things like slavery, but words matter. These were not “slaves,” they were enslaved people. People. Just like you.

My kids and I talked about the Civil War and how Black people were enslaved. Even at eight and five, they understand that enslaving other humans is innately wrong, and they were able to empathize and cheer on Robert Smalls throughout the book, knowing that his pursuit of freedom was both brave and necessary. My oldest also recalled reading about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. 

Age Level

My second-grader understood it well. My preschooler enjoyed the book but wasn’t able to place it in context of other books we had read (in fairness, we did read those books several months ago).  


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