Was Robert Smalls’ Owner Also Robert Smalls’ Father?

I’ve had a couple of people asking about what’s going on in this page and if the suggestion is that Henry McKee is Robert Smalls’ father.

Henry McKee meets Robert Smalls

If you were wondering that yourself then I’ve achieved exactly what I wanted to with this page.

To this day it is unknown who Robert Small’s father was and there are several speculated candidates, a couple of whom I’ll mention here.

*I will say as a warning that the following isn’t particularly pleasant and discusses sexual abuses.*

The Smalls name.

Lydia’s maiden name is Lydia Polite and her first son, Larry, born 22 years earlier around 1818, bore this surname. By the 1870 census, Lydia was listed by the name “Lydia Smalls” but it is unknown where this came from or why she gave Robert this name. It does seem that “Robert Smalls” was a common name at the time.
Some suggest that there was an enslaved man on the McKee plantation also named Robert Smalls who fathered Lydia’s son Robert but there is no evidence confirming this.

Henry McKee as Robert Smalls’ Father.

There are those that speculate that McKee was Robert’s father but there are no conclusive arguments for or against this fact.

Henry McKee was demonstrably fond of Robert throughout the latter’s childhood – maybe uncommonly so – and Robert was in turn kind to McKee and his family later in life. It is also known that McKee was fond of Lydia. The reality of owners having sex with their slaves, often, though not always, by raping them, was certainly not unheard of. This was most common with house slaves such as Lydia. It was even encouraged in some instances as part of a rite of passage to “sow wild oats” and assert dominance, or specifically to impregnate the women to generate new slaves. Sometimes the white owners believed they were doing their black slaves a favour by having sex with them, thereby sparing them from the having to have sex with the “brutish” black slaves.

However, with Henry being a good deal younger than Lydia (around 28 years old to Lydia’s 43 when Robert was born) she had quite a hand in raising him when she was owned by William’s father, John, and so there are those that argue it’s unlikely Henry saw her sexually and instead saw her more as a motherly figure.
There are those that argue as well that McKee had a wife with whom he fathered six children and access to around two dozen slave women much younger than Lydia and so would have had no interest in Lydia for these reasons. Personally, I don’t give any credit to this last argument – we all know that sex, rape, and sexual politics do not need to be attached to attraction or a lack of options.

With all this said, I wanted to include the possibility of McKee being Robert’s father within this page, beginning this on the previous page, without coming down on one side or the other.

How likely do you think it is that Henry McKee was Robert Smalls’ father?


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