Baptists and the American Civil War: December 25, 1865

Robert Smalls, from Harper's Weekly, June 14, 1862

Robert Smalls, from Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862

For white Baptists, Christmas Day is mostly just another day. Privately, relatively few families exchange gifts in their homes. Some mark the day with a special meal. Churches, opposed to holidays with pagan origins, do not celebrate or otherwise recognize the day.

On the other hand, African Americans, including Baptists, have a different view. During the days of slavery, Christmas was the one holiday they were permitted to relax, while sometimes white masters would distribute meager gifts. Yet since the end of slavery, white Southern overtures to blacks, now free, have disappeared. In some cities of the South, black churches and schools built by blacks since April have been burned by white citizens. Hopes of land as payment for generations of stolen labor have generally been unmet. U.S. President Andrew Johnson has often sided with Southern plantation owners, effectively leaving freedmen at the mercy of their former masters. Racial tension is in the air.

Nonetheless, with the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation approaching, some hope for better days. Perhaps the year of Jubilee will be ushered in, the most hopeful muse. This holiday, celebrated as a time of jubilee with gatherings in some black churches, represents hope for a brighter future.

However, in the midst of hope, tension and racial suppression, riots erupt in many cities across the South, some violent in nature. The worst is in Alexandria, Virginia. Instigated by whites resentful of black freedom, two African Americans are killed. Night falls on a city racially divided.

Apart from the riots, this day signals that the year is drawing to a close and that the first full year of freedom for all African-Americans nears. White opposition in some instances aside, hundreds of autonomous black Baptist congregations now dot the South. Many African American leaders, well-represented by Baptists, from within and without church life make plans to assert civil rights for blacks in the year ahead.

Perhaps none is more well-known in the South than Robert Smalls, a Baptist deacon from Beaufort, South Carolina who as a slave during the war in 1862 boldly commandeered the CSS Planter in Charleston Harbor and perilously sailed to freedom. A celebrity in the North afterward, Smalls for his bravery and skills was appointed by the United States Navy as the first black captain of a naval vessel, serving successfully and with distinction. He also became politically active in the Republican Party in 1864.

Returning to Beaufort following the end of the war, he soon purchased his former master’s house. Demonstrating remarkable charity, he allowed his former master’s wife, elderly and then destitute, to live in the home prior to her death.

Viewed as a leader among black citizens of South Carolina, Smalls determines to fight for civil rights and betterment for black persons. To this end he now pursues further studies.

In the immediate years to come he opens a store, establishes a school for black children, starts a newspaper and succeeds in elective politics. Elected to the post-war South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868, he serves therein until 1870, followed by four years in the state senate and five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1875 and 1887. His long service in the U.S. House comes to a close as white Southerners change Reconstruction policies and deny further congressional service for blacks.

Despite a day marred by racial riots, this Christmas Day Robert Smalls represents the hopes of African Americans throughout the South.

Sources: Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: Vintage Books, 1997, 297) (link); Edward A. Miller, Jr., Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls From Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995).