Moore, center,, in a 2017 photo with now Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, left, and former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. at right. File photo.

Charleston businessman Michael Boulware Moore, the great-great-grandson of Civil War hero Robert Smalls, wants to follow in his relative’s footsteps to the U.S. Congress as he joins a production team considering a movie about his legendary ancestor.

Moore, who was integral in development of the International African American Museum, is preparing to announce in the coming weeks that he’ll be a 2024 Democratic Party candidate in the 1st Congressional District. The seat currently is held by U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-Isle of Palms. 

“I’d like to prepare a launch event,” he told the Charleston City Paper Thursday. “I am still building the team and creating the infrastructure for a campaign.”

Moore, an executive with the computer software firm Blackbaud, said for years he has considered elected office. 

“If I am so blessed to be elected, I will be the fourth in the last five generations of people in my family to serve their community, their state and their country via elected office,” he said. “I grew up with a family that understood that problems don’t solve themselves. From the earliest that African Americans could participate in elected politics, my family has been there.”

That public service legacy in Moore’s family began with Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who in 1862 commandeered the Planter, a Confederate steamship, during the Civil War before he gave it to the Union Navy. Smalls masqueraded as the ship’s white captain to smuggle the Planter out of Charleston Harbor. His daring escape catapulted the Beaufort native into the annals of naval history as well as state and national politics.

Smalls then served in the Union Navy aboard the Planter. After the war, he purchased his former enslaver’s mansion and he published a newspaper. He served in both houses of the S.C. General Assembly before he was elected to five terms as a Reconstruction-era member of Congress.

Telling Smalls’ story on film

Legion M, a California movie production company, is exploring the best way to tell Smalls’ story. Moore has joined the Legion M team as an associate producer and creative consultant to help craft a possible movie. So far, the project has the working title – Defiant. Script writers are exploring whether the story should be a feature film or a series to capture Smalls’ multi-faceted life.

Moore in 2019 when he was president of the IAAM. File photo.

The decision has been made, however, to initially tell the story in a graphic novel, Moore said. 

“That will essentially be the storyline that we will take in how the broader story is told,” he added. 

When Smalls took the Planter on May 13, 1862, the white crewmen had spent the night in the city. They trusted Smalls, which may have given him added confidence to make the bold escape. He had been hired in 1861 as a sailor on the Planter. In a year, he was head crewman and later the boat’s pilot.

Smalls’ plan to slip out of the harbor with the Planter included taking the eight other enslaved crewmen on the boat along with five women and three children. The relatives of some of the enslaved crewmen were hidden onboard another boat that was docked nearby. Smalls stopped at the boat briefly to board the women and children.

Smalls also gave the proper whistle signals to make the early morning run past the harbor’s fortifications creditable. After turning the Planter over to the Union Navy, Smalls described Confederate defenses in the waterways and how blockade runners sneaked through enemy lines.

The Robert Smalls story is “Glory meets Ocean’s 11 – an amazing and uplifting story about the most audacious heist in American history,” according to the Legion M’s website

Amazon Studios in 2021 had plans to produce a Robert Smalls movie, but it did not get off the ground, possibly due to the hardships of the pandemic, Moore said. 

A different kind of movie company

Legion M is an innovative movie production company that decides which movies to produce based on moviegoers’ responses. 

“They allow individuals to not only buy into the company but also to buy into specific movie projects,” Moore said. “They develop a groundswell of support for a movie even before it is created,” he added.

Social media comments about Robert Smalls, Moore explained, “got the attention of the Legion M folks, and they committed to work on it and started building the team.”

After Reconstruction, the Robert Smalls story in the South was muted and Northerners weren’t interested in hearing stories of Black heroes, said Moore, who grew up in Boston. 

“We were too busy hearing about Paul Revere,” he said laughing. “As a young kid that was cool, but that wasn’t like what Robert Smalls did.”

The story of his great-great-grandfather’s exploits motivated Moore to take on the early task of helping to build the International African American Museum (IAAM). 

“I know how important that has been to me to know about my ancestor,” said Moore, the IAAM’s founding president and CEO. “I know there are lots of those stories in different ways, but stories that need to be elevated and need to be told to provide a more accurate accounting of American history.”

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.