Robert Smalls, born into slavery in 1839, was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives at the dawn of the Reconstruction era. A staunch advocate for African-American voting rights, Smalls proposed resolutions at the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention that protected black voters and pushed the state to create the nation’s first public school system.
Smalls represented South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives by serving in the 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th and 49th Congresses. During his five congressional terms, Smalls continued to fight for black political representation and participation in politics as a member of the Republican Party. In 1895, Smalls refused to sign an amendment to the South Carolina state Constitution that essentially revoked the voting rights given to blacks in the 1868 constitutional rewrite, laying the foundation for Jim Crow laws in the state.