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.
Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.