ONTD Political

The great migration from black to white: an overlooked chapter in the history of African-Americans

7:26 pm - 02/22/2011
His very name hovered on the line between slavery and freedom: Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall. Orindatus was a slave's name, through and through. It had a Latinate grandiosity that many masters favored for their chattel when Wall was born on a North Carolina plantation in the 1820s, the son of his owner and a slave woman. All his life, people got the name wrong. They called him Oliver. They called him Odatis. Eventually, he went by his initials: O.S.B. Wall.

As much as Orindatus signaled slavery, his middle names suggested the opposite: Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of Latin America, a man who had decreed freedom for slaves and led a popular movement he described as "closer to a blend of Africa and America than an emanation from Europe." Perhaps this was Wall's father's attempt at irony, an ultimate affirmation of his mastery. But perhaps the name represented other ideas and aspirations that Stephen Wall harbored for his son. In 1838, he freed O.S.B. Wall and sent him to southern Ohio, to be raised and educated by Quaker abolitionists. His mother stayed behind.

By any measure, O.S.B. Wall soon became a hero of African-American history, the kind of man Black History Month was created to celebrate. But today he is forgotten. The story of his rise to prominence and fall into obscurity reveals one of the great hidden narratives of the American experience. While O.S.B. Wall spent a lifetime fighting for civil rights, his children grew up to become white people.

Over the half-century that followed his emancipation, O.S.B. Wall stayed in constant motion. He learned the humble art of bootmaking, a trade long associated with radical politics—many of the people who kicked down the Bastille's doors had stitched their own shoes. Wall put his radicalism to work in the 1850s when he moved to Oberlin, the most abolitionist town in America. He became active in anti-slavery circles and a fixture of a black community that was prosperous and powerful. The township clerk was Wall's brother-in-law, John Mercer Langston, the first African-American elected to political office in the United States.

In 1858, Wall was indicted under the Fugitive Slave Act for helping a vigilante mob rescue a man from Kentucky slave catchers. (Asked in federal court if he "knew the colors by which people of color were classified," he answered bluntly: "There were black, blacker, blackest.") During the Civil War, the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth and other black regiments were filled with hundreds of soldiers that Wall recruited for the fight. In 1865, he became the first African-American to be regularly commissioned a captain in the Union Army. Arriving in South Carolina just before Lee's surrender, he joined the Freedmen's Bureau and helped shape the end of slavery and the dawn of a new era.

In 1867, Wall moved to Washington, D.C., where he integrated the First Congregational Church, recruited the first students to attend Howard University, and graduated in the second class of Howard's law school. While his wife Amanda taught freedpeople in their home and marched for voting rights for women, Wall served as a police magistrate and justice of the peace, responsible for small civil cases and petty crimes. For many newly freed African-Americans in the District, he was the law, and they called him Squire Wall. He was elected to two terms in the territorial legislature, representing a majority white district. After his death in 1891, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

With a driving ambition for himself and his people and a keen appreciation of the cruelty and absurdity of race in the United States, O.S.B. Wall embodied the hopes and dreams, the anger and despair, of African-Americans during the nation's transition from slavery to freedom to Jim Crow. Time and again, he was called upon to defend his activism before hostile audiences—prosecutors and senators and journalists—and he responded with dignity, defiance, and a sharp sense of humor.

But today he is almost lost to history. There are many reasons for this. Although it's hard for us to believe now, until the 1960s major historians regarded Reconstruction as a decade of crime and corruption, of oppressive government led by comically inept blacks, ended only through the humble heroics of the white South. This academic and popular consensus denied the existence of the true heroes of the age, among them Wall, his more prominent friends Richard Greener, John R. Lynch, and Langston, and many others. These African-American leaders were never canonized as great Americans, so they never took root in our historical memory.

Wall also left no written body of work that could be preserved and recovered aside from a few letters and some testimony in court and Senate hearings, scattered across the country in lonely archives and library stacks. Few physical traces of Wall's life survive. His sprawling house near Howard University, where he entertained Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and other luminaries of the day, was demolished in 1902, just as many other would-be monuments of black history were destroyed. A segregated school was built in its place.

But most importantly, Wall had no family to claim and remember him. He and his wife had five children who survived to adulthood. They attended Oberlin, took government positions, and became active in black Republican circles in Washington. Within a few years of their father's death, however, they began to cut their ties to the black community and identify as white. By 1910, no one was left who wanted to keep the memory of O.S.B. Wall alive.

While Wall's life tracks some of the central themes of black history, his children's lives reveal one of its great hidden stories. From the colonial era onward, African-Americans were continually crossing the color line and establishing themselves as white people. It was a mass migration aided by American traditions of mobility, a national acceptance of self-fashioning, and the flux of life on the frontier. It is easy to forget how significant this mass migration was, because it was purposely kept a secret. But it touched millions of lives, simultaneously undermining and reinforcing the meaning of black and white.

Because of its secrecy, "passing for white" has long been the province of literature, not history. Over the last 200 years, dozens of novels, plays, and movies have imagined African-Americans who become white, as well as whites who discover a trace of black ancestry. Most have treated passing as a tragic masquerade: Becoming white means abandoning family, moving far from home, changing names and identities, and living in constant fear that the secret will be betrayed. This conventional narrative has made it easy to regard the history of migration across the color line as something outside of African-American history—marginal to the black experience, almost its negation. When histories of race mention people assimilating into white communities, such accounts hardly ever follow them past the point of becoming white. These individuals fade out of existence.

But with the rise of DNA testing and the proliferation of searchable history and genealogy databases on the Internet, many Americans are discovering that they have African-American ancestry, and it is becoming easier to track individual journeys from black to white. Starting with probate records and comments that living descendants left in ancestry chat rooms, I was able to follow O.S.B. Wall's descendents all the way to the present. And the story of Wall's children suggests that becoming white deserves a place in black history and in the larger history of race in the United States.

In important ways, the story of O.S.B. Wall's children reads like a conventional passing narrative. Most changed their names. Although their fair complexions raised little suspicion about their race, three left Washington for larger cities where the family was unknown.

But other details complicate the conventional narrative. (I follow two other families in my book The Invisible Line who complicate it even more profoundly.) The Walls stayed in touch even after they had settled their parents' estate, moved far away from each other, and married whites. One spent years moving back and forth between white and black communities, eventually settling on being Irish at home and black at work. As a compositor at the Government Printing Office, he had been outspoken about racial discrimination on the job. He kept working there long after his family started passing for white, although he preferred the relative anonymity of the night shift. Another kept a picture of Abraham Lincoln on her mirror 50 years after crossing the line. A feminist pamphleteer, she said the Great Liberator inspired her life's work, but never explained how he had inspired her parents decades earlier.

You might assume that the Walls crossed the color line to gain access to opportunities available only to whites. But becoming white was downwardly mobile for them, as they traded in a legacy of African-American achievement for lives as whites clinging to the edge of the middle class. While O.S.B. Wall had been a lawyer, one son was a printer, the other a railroad conductor, and a daughter kept a boarding house. His oldest granddaughter married a wool sorter for New England textile mills, and when times were tough, they would go to the shore and dig for scallops.

Which is not to say that the Walls could have necessarily followed in their father's footsteps had they continued to identify as black. Their story helps us understand the lives of blacks who grew up during Reconstruction. O.S.B. Wall's children went to integrated schools with the children of prominent white abolitionists and Freedmen's Bureau officials. They came of age when it was reasonable to expect that they could participate in American life as equal citizens, only to see the door slammed shut by Jim Crow. From the mid-1870s onward, a hopeful generation watched while former rebels regained control of the South, the vote was stripped away, and the Party of Lincoln turned away from civil rights. Blacks and whites stopped socializing in the District, and city directories began putting asterisks by African-American names. Casual encounters with whites grew reliably uncivil, and newspapers carried terrifying accounts of lynchings across the South every few days.

All the while, Jim Crow required the Walls—and people who looked like them—to think constantly about racial categories. For years before they became white, they had to spend every day articulating what it meant to be black. They had to insist on being black, to shopkeepers and policemen and riders on streetcars, people who reflexively categorized them as white in a segregated world (a constant profession of race that the artist and philosopher Adrian Piper has called "passing for black"). And when they decided to become white, it was not an escape from race. They had to think not only about what it would take to establish and secure for themselves a place in a segregated white community, but also how to act around black people, how to talk about them, and, most tragically, how to hate them. When one of O.S.B. Wall's great-grandchildren recently learned about the family history, she remembered something her mother had once said about her childhood: Every time an African-American moved nearby, her family would pick up stakes and change neighborhoods. Her father insisted that blacks would lower property values.

Ultimately, the Walls' experience and the experience of people who made the same journey force us to rethink the categories of black and white. Biology—"black blood"—cannot be what makes a person black. Throughout American history, across the country, African-Americans were able to establish themselves as white. Even as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, when the South segregated and the politics and culture of the region turned on the notion of white racial purity, when statutes were first enacted across the region defining anyone with any African ancestry to be legally black, the migration did not stop. To the contrary, such laws pushed people like the Walls across the line.

In a country where large numbers of white people have black blood, what does race mean? The Wall family history shows how the category of black has always functioned primarily as a marker of discrimination. Or as W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote, black simply means the person "who must ride 'Jim Crow' in Georgia."

If O.S.B. Wall's children did not live the rest of their lives as African-Americans, their experience still says something profound about race in the United States. The historical migration from black to white affected African-American history at its most basic level: by making heroes disappear. Eighty-five years ago Dr. Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week to celebrate people like O.S.B. Wall. Today, even as we recover his story, it is crucial that we also remember why he was forgotten.


I only knew a little about Reconstruction, but was surprised (color me naive) that the Birth of a Nation viewpoint was actually the MAINSTREAM HISTORICAL VIEWPOINT about that era. And to be sure I'm interested in what happened to the people who 'passed' before and after they passed. Will look out for this book.
ginmar 22nd-Feb-2011 09:58 pm (UTC)
Dammit. Another book that I must read.
bowtomecha 22nd-Feb-2011 10:10 pm (UTC)
this was an amazing read.
dyfferent 22nd-Feb-2011 11:15 pm (UTC)
There were pics at the source. I am a lazy shit and didn't use them. There's also a book cited in one of the captions in which OSB was mentioned, if you want to dig deeper.
lickety_split 22nd-Feb-2011 10:11 pm (UTC)
But becoming white was downwardly mobile for them, as they traded in a legacy of African-American achievement for lives as whites clinging to the edge of the middle class.

Where did I leave all my sympathy again?
lickety_split 22nd-Feb-2011 11:35 pm (UTC)
No not there. Check under my rhinoplasty surgery authorization forms.
bluetooth16 23rd-Feb-2011 12:11 am (UTC)
keeni84 23rd-Feb-2011 01:15 am (UTC)
dyfferent 23rd-Feb-2011 12:01 am (UTC)
To be fair they were part white. The culture is what made it a binary.
lickety_split 23rd-Feb-2011 12:08 am (UTC)
There was no such thing as "part white" in the 19th's century. Besides, they were not identifying as white to make some kind of political statement on culture and "appreciating all parts of your heritage".
fishphile 23rd-Feb-2011 01:39 am (UTC)
I know some folks trying to do that shit right now and those negroes couldn't pass as white no matter how hard they try. It is hilarious to see them try though.
devetu 22nd-Feb-2011 10:26 pm (UTC)
i also have to "pass as black." my skin is white but my features aren't necessarily so, so most often i'm assumed to be of greek or spanish descent, sometimes latino. the greatest resistance i ever get to being black is from white people, who whenever i say i'm black are so quick to say "but you're mixed, right?" or say stupid things like i'm "milky black" or "milk chocolate." but we all know if i were a few shades darker or my hair wasn't so silky they wouldn't be making the distinction. i always get the vibe from them like they don't understand why someone who could pass for non-black would still choose to do so, and they're just doing me a favour by trying to save me from blackness or something.

so white people, tell all your friends. if someone says "i'm _____." trust them.
devetu 23rd-Feb-2011 06:15 am (UTC)
if we were in the 18th century american deep south i'd be a nigger and slave with everyone else, including the people below this comment. hope that clears that up for you.
cecilia_weasley 23rd-Feb-2011 06:10 am (UTC)
I'm white, so I'll remember that. I don't usually press people for more info, usually when they ask me where I'm from*, I tell them, I ask them, they say, and that's it.

I hope the following story doesn't upset anyone here, but many people ask my boyfriend if he's black, including anthropology professors and students in the program. His skin is white, he has light coloured eyes, he was raised in a white culture, so he identifies as white, specifically Canadian. He's doing research on his family tree, but nothing past great-great-great-great grandfathers has been found. (and from the pictures, these people look white) He also gets asked if he's mixed, and often gets pressed, but he wouldn't be ashamed to say if he were. He doesn't know, and so he says he's white.
lickety_split 22nd-Feb-2011 10:36 pm (UTC)
You know, it's sad that they feel the need to do that and the shitty part is that it hasn't changed one bit, but the way it's expressed is a bit different nowadays.

Now that being labeled as black isn't a death order anymore and since it's even kind of ~kewl to be "a little bit colored", black people don't necessarily pass for white anymore as much as there's a problem of "I'm not as black as those other folk" obsession. It's okay to be black, but not THAT black.

I can understand the obsession completely, because most people (complete strangers!) will totally admit to adhering to this. Black people, raise your hand if you get told regularly, to your face, that you were hired or allowed into a group because you were a "safe black person". Great. All of you. Now, if you're light-skinned, how many of you were told that you hired or allowed in because you were "safe" AND because you were a minority but "could still blend in"? All of you again? Wow! I'm surprised! Congratulations, you are now officially a Safe Minority Mouthpiece!

And then there's this air of superiority you get from light-skinned people when they describe themselves as they INSIST VEHEMENTLY that they don't believe they're better than darker black people despite their ~silky curly, their ~milky white skin, and how FREQUENTLY they are mistaken for not being black. They will go on and on and on about what they look like just so EVERYONE IS CLEAR by how "almost not black" they really are. Do darker black people drop into such poetic prose about their skin color? No. But ask a light-skinned person about what they look like and they'll spend a paragraph talking about their skin color and how often NO ONE BELIEVES THEY'RE BLACK, and how IT HAS BEEN SO HARD. (eventually they'll post a picture of themselves in harsh sunlight)

I'm just sayin', the obsession with "whiteness" isn't anything new and it hasn't gone away. I'm not surprised that this man's children's didn't attempt to bring themselves up by disassociating themselves with their blackness. People did it back then and they still do it now. Hell, people do it here in the comments.


Edited at 2011-02-22 10:38 pm (UTC)
bluetooth16 22nd-Feb-2011 11:35 pm (UTC)
I'm not going to fight I'm just going to LOL at the pic and "Safe Minority Mouthpiece" because it's totally true!
lickety_split 23rd-Feb-2011 12:13 am (UTC)
You know it is! They say it right to your face! With confidence!
keeni84 23rd-Feb-2011 01:16 am (UTC)
And then there's this air of superiority you get from light-skinned people when they describe themselves as they INSIST VEHEMENTLY that they don't believe they're better than darker black people despite their ~silky curly, their ~milky white skin, and how FREQUENTLY they are mistaken for not being black. They will go on and on and on about what they look like just so EVERYONE IS CLEAR by how "almost not black" they really are. Do darker black people drop into such poetic prose about their skin color? No. But ask a light-skinned person about what they look like and they'll spend a paragraph talking about their skin color and how often NO ONE BELIEVES THEY'RE BLACK, and how IT HAS BEEN SO HARD. (eventually they'll post a picture of themselves in harsh sunlight)

keeni84 23rd-Feb-2011 01:27 am (UTC)
Hell, people do it here in the comments.

LOL hahahahaahaha gurl
fishphile 23rd-Feb-2011 01:44 am (UTC)
U R just jealous of all that silky hair.
lickety_split 23rd-Feb-2011 02:03 am (UTC)
fishphile 23rd-Feb-2011 02:27 am (UTC)
Light skin powers activate!

we need some captain planet rings or some shit. "With your powers combined..."
bunnycupcakes 26th-Feb-2011 03:50 am (UTC)
Late as fuck but I'm loling anyway.

I actually had been wearing my hair natural for months and I was happy, but I was pressured by family into getting a relaxer and EVERYONE told me how much better I looked. My boss even said it made me look more "mature and professional".


Anyway, guess who got her fro back? :D

*pats hair*
bluetooth16 22nd-Feb-2011 11:33 pm (UTC)
*add this to my Must Read list*
lickety_split 22nd-Feb-2011 11:39 pm (UTC)
This article is making me so mad. Fuck these kids. Clearly their "passin'" didn't do much good. Secret's out!

bluetooth16 22nd-Feb-2011 11:56 pm (UTC)
I can't remember which comedian came up with that sketch!
lickety_split 23rd-Feb-2011 12:09 am (UTC)
Dave Chapelle.
bluetooth16 23rd-Feb-2011 12:10 am (UTC)
Thanks! I never watched his entire show, just random bits on YouTube.
cecilia_weasley 23rd-Feb-2011 05:56 am (UTC)
It reminded me of the setup in colonial South America, where one (supposedly) could buy themselves to white. No word on how they were actually treated though, just that they had money.
lickety_split 23rd-Feb-2011 05:57 am (UTC)
Race Cards

Note: available in black, brown, and yellow only
cecilia_weasley 23rd-Feb-2011 06:12 am (UTC)
hinoema 23rd-Feb-2011 04:34 am (UTC)
Excellent article. I need to look for this book.

It could also apply equally well to Native American descendants. My mother has spent most of her life tracking her family's journey from red to white, so to speak, and it's not easy, either. My great grandfather had to claim 'whitehood' in order to be able to go to college.
cecilia_weasley 23rd-Feb-2011 05:55 am (UTC)
This is so interesting! I want to read the book!
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