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

The history behind current events.
Feb. 22 2011 7:20 AM

Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall

A hero of African-American history whose story is forgotten because his descendants decided they were white.

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Stephen and Lillie Wall, O.S.B. Wall's son and daughter-in-law. Click image to expand.
Stephen and Lillie Wall, O.S.B. Wall's son and daughter-in-law

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.

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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.

Isabel, Roscoe, and Ethel Wall, O.S.B. Wall's grandchildren, Washington, D.C., c. 1909. Click image to expand.
Isabel, Roscoe, and Ethel Wall, O.S.B. Wall's grandchildren, Washington, D.C., circa 1909

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.

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