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.

O.S.B. Wall in Joseph T. Wilson, The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States (1890). Click image to expand.
O.S.B. Wall in Joseph T. Wilson's The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States (1890).

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.

Stephen R. Wall, O.S.B. Wall's father and owner. Click image to expand.
Stephen R. Wall, O.S.B. Wall's father and owner

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.

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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.

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