Remembering O.S.B. Wall: A black hero whose descendants became white

An image of O.S.B. Wall, from Joseph Thomas Wilson's 1890 book "The Black Phalanx."

In Slate, Daniel Sharfstein recounts the history of Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall, a freed slave and DC resident whose children decided to pass for white:

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. [...]

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.

Thought this was a fitting link for the last day of Black History Month. The burial site of O.S.B. Wall can be found in Arlington National Cemetery, where his gravestone proudly notes his service as a member of the first black regiment of Civil War volunteers.

  • Msday

    Eye opening story. Thanks for sharing!