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Escape into Whiteness

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J.D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi
Stephen Wall of Rockingham, North Carolina, who in 1838 sent five of his mixed-race children to Harveysburg, Ohio, ‘an area settled,’ writes Brent Staples, ‘by militantly abolitionist Quakers who had left North Carolina out of opposition to slavery.’

While in Oberlin, O.S.B. joined a large group of local men who prevented a slave catcher from spiriting away a runaway slave named John Price. The rescuers were subsequently charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act and put on trial. O.S.B.’s crafty performance on the stand prompted the newspapers to say that a black man “had show[n] more intelligence, by far, than the Kentucky negro catchers who preceded him.” He was later released because the indictment listed him incorrectly as “Oliver S.B. Wall.” Others who went to jail did so proudly and were visited by a steady stream of well-wishers. Among those who visited with the men was the formidable John Brown. He had followed the case with interest and was recruiting men for the raid that would be carried out at Harpers Ferry a year later.

O.S.B. recruited troops for the Union in the Civil War and served among them as a captain. By the late 1860s, he had left his life of comfort in Oberlin to settle in the muddy, half-made city of Washington, where he and John Mercer Langston worked for the Freedman’s Bureau trying to integrate former slaves into American life. O.S.B.’s loyalty in wartime paid off in peacetime commissions. President Grant appointed him the city’s first Negro justice of the peace, empowering him to hear small claims cases. He simultaneously served as a police magistrate, hearing the cases of offenders. A popular political figure, at least initially, he was twice elected to Washington’s legislative assembly representing a majority-white district.

His fortunes declined as swiftly as they had risen. Dogged by charges of corruption and incompetence, he was vilified in the white press and could expect no sympathy from an increasing bigoted Congress. In 1878, there was a particularly damaging scandal involving Wall’s attempts to force the Freedman’s Hospital to purchase supplies from a grocery store that he had started. Rutherford B. Hayes submitted his name to the Senate for reappointment to another term as justice of the peace shortly thereafter, and despite favorable testimony about his abilities, the Senate rejected his appointment along with that of another colored nominee. As Sharfstein writes: “After almost a decade of public life, Wall was left scratching out a living as what he called a ‘one-horse lawyer,’ representing petty criminals in the police court.”

Despite this setback, the Wall house on Howard Hill was still a place of elegant dinner parties with music and stimulating conversation. Among the guests were such political luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. O.S.B. regaled them by candlelight with stories of his younger self and “hairbreadth escapes when he was conveying slaves to freedom by the Underground Railroad.” But the good life, financed with growing debt, was limited to the evening hours. Come morning, he trudged off to the dingy world of the police court, where he hustled among small-time thieves for clients who could barely pay his five-dollar fee. O.S.B. Wall suffered a stroke in court and died in the spring of 1891.

Sharfstein writes that O.S.B. and Amanda’s five children drew an obvious lesson from all this. The steady encroachment of Jim Crow into the life of the capital, combined with the experience of watching their father publicly diminished, clearly influenced their decisions to drop their black identities and move into the white world. By the time of Amanda’s death in 1902, Stephen’s brother Edward had married a French woman and moved to Canada, where he worked as a sleeping car conductor on the Canadian Pacific Railway—a position that would be closed to blacks for another fifty years. Two of the three Wall sisters had already crossed over and the third did so shortly after Amanda’s funeral.

Stephen’s sister, Bel, had moved to New York and become Mrs. Gotthold Otto Elterich, the wife of a German engineer who built railroads in the America West. Her husband’s name and occupation brought a powerful presumption of whiteness that carried the day for Bel even in Washington, where people knew better. In 1907, Elterich died in a boating accident abroad while in the company of another woman. The Washington Post, which had written scores of articles about O.S.B. during his lifetime, made no mention of race, but described the grieving widow as the former “Miss Isabel Irene Wall,” the daughter of “a successful lawyer,” who was “well known in diplomatic and social circles.”

None of this would have been lost on O.S.B.’s son Stephen. At the time of Elterich’s death, Stephen was longing for relief from the discrimination that had battered him during his nearly three decades at the Government Printing Office. He had narrowly survived “mass purges of skilled black printers” but had nonetheless been fired on two occasions, each time for a five-year period, by new Democratic administrations. He had listed himself as “colored” in his second request for reinstatement and thought his father’s service among the colored troops in the Civil War had helped him get the job. Still, the ties that bound him to the world of the colored elite were slackening. Light enough to pass, he improved his image as a white man when he marred Lillie Slee, a white woman raised in Massachusetts by a Canadian mother.

The couple built a house in Washington’s white Brookland neighborhood and might have lived there without trouble had the Wall name been less well known. In due course, stories about Stephen’s colored past started to circulate, and the Wall’s daughter Isabel was rejected from the local school for being of Negro blood. “Her teachers were stunned,” Sharfstein writes. “None of them even suspected that she had colored blood,” one of them said.

When Stephen appealed the decision to the school board, and then filed suit to force them to readmit Isabel, he argued that the state was required to produce evidence to prove its charge. This was a losing tactic at a time when one could be declared a Negro simply by being “known” to be one. Predictably, police officers testified that Stephen’s father, O.S.B., was “regarded as a colored man” and that his mother, Amanda, was “yellow in appearance.” The mortician who had prepared her body for burial resorted to the sensory prejudice that had by then become part of the Jim Crow cast of mind. He had assumed Amanda’s body was colored, he said, because it emanated the “offensive” odor that was characteristic of Negroes.

In the end, the court conceded that Isabel had “no physical characteristic which afforded ocular evidence suggestive of aught but the Caucasian” but noted that “her father presents to the eye racial characteristics which identify him of Negro blood.” The board voted 8–1 to declare the child colored. The lone holdout was Mary Church Terrell. She’d had a long association with the Walls and had no doubt done all she could in a failed attempt to sway the panel in Isabel’s favor.

The publicity associated with the case was disastrous for Stephen, who was again laid off from the Government Printing Office. Nonetheless, as Sharfstein writes, “The courts could not keep them from becoming white, but affected only how they did so.” By the turn of the 1920s, Stephen had regained his job at the printing office—without using his considerable connections in the black elite. This time he worked the night shift, from which he could presumably come and go without attracting much notice. By then, Stephen and Lillie had sold their house in Brookland, changed both their first and last names, and slipped across the color line.

The value of newly acquired whiteness is often measured in dollars and cents. Historians of the Jefferson Hemings family, for example, have found distinct differences between the fortunes of children and grandchildren of Madison Hemings, who remained black, and the offspring of his younger brother, Eston, who turned white. Madison’s progeny were mainly storekeepers, small farmers, laborers, caterers, or servants. Eston’s included doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and military officers. But their economic success was counterbalanced by a persistent anxiety associated with hiding the past and a considerable fear of being found out.6

Stephen inherited the anxiety and paranoia that came with passing but none of its material benefits. He had become white on the verge of retirement, too late to leverage his new identity into a new career. He had also developed the costly habit of packing up and moving whenever black families appeared in the steady succession of new neighborhoods to which he had moved to avoid them. This taxed the family’s meager resources and damaged his children, who later showed the scars of having had to lie about who they were while living a scattered, itinerant life.

One suspects that the young Walls would have fared far better—and been given a setting for their lives—had the family embraced its ancestry and sheltered among colored elites like the Terrells, from whom Stephen had rented a house along the way to his final escape into whiteness. But Stephen was beyond retreat by the turn of the 1920s. By then he had abandoned the Wall name and turned his back finally on the colored ancestral past.

  1. 6

    Lucia Stanton and Dianne Swann-Wright, “The Bonds of Memory: Identity and The Hemings Family,” in Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory, and Civic Culture, edited by Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf (University Press of Virginia, 1999). 

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