Featured Poem: The Spell of the Union

 

Joy A. Burki-Watson
Member-at-large

 

I wanted release so I sought it, I worked in the South as a slave,
Freedom took plenty of forethought and more than a fair share of brave.
I’d not be deprived of a free life, all because of my color at birth
And surely, I’d find that my past strife would urge me to work for my worth.

 

My mother, a servant in Beaufort — my father, the slave owner’s son,
All hushed by their need for concealment, where the white of my black was homespun;
I was named Robert Smalls for that reason and slaved in their fields as a youth
Then shipped off to Charleston, unseasoned, to slave on their docks — Gospel truth!

 

Sail maker would soon become rigger and then onward I’d pilot their ships,
Always the slave and the ‘nigger’ [sic] and always kept under their grips.
’twas Charleston, South Carolina that faced the first shots of that war
And I at wheel of a steamer, saw freedom like never before!

 

In the early hours of May13th, the white crew aboard took shore leave
And left me in charge of my own life as well as that ship I’d now thieve.
The C.S.S. Planter was loaded with all of my kinfolk and peers
It served us as liberty’s motive and way to escape our past years.

 

I then donned the captain’s attire and steered out through mine-laden bay,
I’d signal the guards at Fort Sumter and head out the ocean’s seaway
Once out of Confederate gun range, I made a fast dash to be free
Knowing full well that we’d look strange to the blockade and Union navy.

 

With white flag a’waving surrender, I offered up guns and the ship
And all of us joined with those forces to challenge the South’s leadership —
How civil is war of derision when folks are not treated with fair?
It certainly made “split-decision” a term for this nation’s warfare.

 

Ev’ry good war has its heroes and I wanted to fill those big shoes
After the war I returned to the place where now I could alter old views.
I served five terms as a Congressman and constituent’s rep for what’s right
Offering reasons to take a stand when life presented foresight!

 

I also would purchase the mansion where Mother and I were enslaved;
It stands for new eras of fashion and all of the things we once craved.
I wanted release so I sought it, I worked in the South as a slave
Freedom took plenty of forethought and more than a fair share of brave.

 

Special Notes:
Robert Smalls (1839-1916) was a black American statesman who was born a slave and made a daring escape at the beginning of the Civil War. After the war he went on to have a successful political career; first serving in the South Carolina House of Representatives and the South Carolina Senate before being elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1874. Later in his life he was appointed U.S. Collector of Customs in Beaufort South Carolina serving from 1889 through 1911.

An interesting fact is that he bought and lived in the house in which he had been a slave. He actually allowed his former slave-master’s wife to move back into the house shortly before her death.

Robert Smalls died on February 23rd of 1915, the cause of death was unspecified.

Comments

  1. Christina Laurie says

    What a fascinating story. Thanks for sharing a bit of lost history.t

  2. Barb Whitmarsh NLAPW says

    VERY POWERFUL AND WELL PRESENTED.
    A REAL LEARNING PIECE OF VERBAL ART.
    THANK YOU SO MUCH.

  3. Thank you for appreciating all.

  4. Excellent!

  5. Sandra Michel says

    Thank you for the poem and for the “rest of the story.”

  6. Fascinating facts and a unique poetic presentation. A story I never knew but now stuck in my pocket of historical issues as the story takes form and comes alive in the context of poetry. Well done and thank you, Joy!

  7. Joy Burki-Watson says

    Thanks so much for reading & sharing back. Joy

  8. I really like this poem and love the story. Very interesting to learn of this incredible black slave turned congressman. Thanks.

  9. Dulcie Miller says

    Incredible story and incredible writing. So glad glad you shared. So much incredible history gets lost!

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