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Escape into Whiteness

1.

Tickets to the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial were a hot item in the spring of 1922. Tens of thousands of people converged on the Mall for a day of celebration that included parades, music, and speeches by President Warren Harding and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft, under whose presidency the memorial had been initiated.

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Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/New York Public Library
Mary Church Terrell, circa 1902

One of the better-known black Washingtonians on hand that sunny Memorial Day was Whitefield McKinlay, former collector of customs at Georgetown and real estate manager to many of the city’s light-skinned mulatto elite. Nearing his seventieth birthday, McKinlay had lived through the best and the worst of what the post–Civil War world had to offer people of color. He had enrolled in the University of South Carolina during the heady days of Reconstruction and then been expelled when the Democrats rose to power there and created a particularly virulent form of the Jim Crow state. He had seen black politicians swept into office by newly enfranchised black voters and swept out again when the franchise was revoked.

Through this same process, Washington, D.C., had been transformed from what one of McKinlay’s more prominent real estate clients had termed “The Colored Man’s Paradise”—a place of considerable freedom and opportunity—into what the historian David Levering Lewis aptly describes as a “purgatory,” where Negroes were barred from hotels and restaurants, driven from federal jobs, and generally persecuted by Southerners in Congress who seemed intent on erasing the colored presence from the city.1 Though he does not deal at length with McKinlay, Daniel Sharfstein, an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt, brings this part of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Negro society vividly to life in his authoritative and elegantly written The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.

McKinlay had been pleased by the beautifully engraved invitation to the event at the Lincoln Memorial and seems to have viewed it as a sign that Harding and the resurgent Republicans intended to relax the strictures of segregation. He and his wife learned otherwise when they presented their tickets at the entrance to the platform section, where they expected to be seated in comfortable folding chairs. They were instead marched to a weed-filled zone nearly a block away whose seating consisted of rough-hewn, backless benches. There the McKinlays encountered other prominent members of the colored race—doctors, lawyers, judges, professors, and businessmen—cordoned off from the white portion of the audience and presided over by uniformed Marines. When the McKinlays took seats along an aisle, a Marine demanded that they move to the center to make way for others yet to come. When the couple hesitated, the soldier barked that they should “think damned quick.” The Jim Crow section erupted in protest and the McKinlays vacated the grounds, followed by many members of Washington and Baltimore colored society.2

The New York Times ran several thousand words on the day’s events but made mention neither of the segregated seating nor the near riot that had occurred there. That news was carried under angry headlines in black newspapers like The Baltimore Afro-American, The Chicago Defender, and The Washington Tribune. The Tribune reported that the Negro aristocrats had received specially marked tickets that designated them as colored. It is not clear how this tactic came about, but it was especially useful in a city where the Negro upper classes were dominated by families whose African ancestries were often indiscernible to the untutored eye.

The near-white elite, as Sharfstein writes, traced its ancestry to slave-era liaisons between its white, slave-owning fathers and grandfathers and the black or mulatto women those men had owned. In Washington—as in Charleston and New Orleans—the elite families often kept themselves “light, bright and damn near white”3 by spurning darker suitors and marrying within the caste. Where they remained colored, they often did so by choice, which is to say that they could have crossed the line to live as white whenever it suited them. With a colored population like this one, the capital was emphatically not a place where a ticket holder’s race could be reliably inferred from the color of his skin.

In this world, preachers felt it necessary to warn the flock against the sins of passing for white, or, in the language of the light-skinned Washingtonian Reverend Francis J. Grimké, of being tempted to “sail under false colors.”4 But even race-proud congregants who militantly identified themselves as Negro were sometimes willing to be seen as white in order to temporarily escape the penalties of blackness. They posed as “Portuguese” or “Spanish” in order to rent rooms at “whites only” hotels and eat at segregated restaurants without suffering the humiliation of having screens erected around their tables. They took in Broadway shows at the National Theater, whose famously bigoted management later hired a black doorman to spy out and bounce ticket holders whose colored ancestries were undetectable to whites.

Given a choice between sitting upright several nights running in the filthy, smoke-filled Jim Crow train car and resting comfortably in the “whites only” Pullman sleeper, many of the colored elites understandably chose the latter. One of those who spoke openly about doing so was Mary Church Terrell, a journalist, an advocate of African-American rights, and the wife of Robert Terrell, a Harvard graduate and municipal judge. When an acquaintance expressed dismay at Mary’s habit of riding in the white car, she replied that she had an obligation to arrive at speaking engagements fit and well rested.5

Mary returned to her life as a colored woman when she arrived at Washington’s Union Station. But she sympathized with people who permanently chose whiteness in order to improve their lives and the lives of their children. While traveling abroad a few years before the Lincoln Memorial dedication, she met a friend who tried to ignore her because he had become white and no longer associated with people who lived as colored. She forced him to acknowledge her but wrote to Robert:

Jack Durham is very much better off today as a white man than he could ever have been as negro! It would be a crime for him to bring his son up as a negro with all the damnable prejudice he would have to face!

Black people everywhere understood the necessity of having to lose contact with friends and relatives who had given up their colored identities to become white. The Negro press shielded “passers,” as they were called, from discovery by quoting them anonymously; it published stories that mocked whites for failing to notice the Negroes who had insinuated themselves into exclusively white banks, law firms, and department store sales forces. But there was no comfort in this for people who had been abandoned by siblings, children, or even parents who had slipped away into the white world, never to be heard from again. Those who were left behind mourned the departed in the same way that they grieved for people who had died.

2.

The Invisible Line constructs a nuanced history of racial crossing—carrying the reader from the pre-Revolutionary period to the present day—through the stories of three families. The Gibsons began to pass as white in backcountry South Carolina in the 1760s and then rose to the heights of Southern aristocracy and into the Senate. The Spencers, who were struggling farmers, joined an isolated Kentucky mountain community in the 1840s (where Negroes were scarcely seen at all) and became legally white after hovering in racial ambiguity for nearly one hundred years. The Gibson and Spencer strands of the story are evocative and well grounded in time and place. But the book is anchored in the story of Mr. and Mrs. Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall, a well-to-do free black couple who moved to Washington from Oberlin, Ohio, during the hopeful days of Reconstruction. They and their five children suffered considerably as the attitudes of whites became more and more hostile.

The Wall narrative, as Sharfstein tells it, turns on the story of Stephen, the second eldest of the Wall children, who tried and failed to be treated as white in 1910 in Washington and finally succeeded—at an enormous cost—a decade later. Stephen undertook this transformation not by disappearing and moving to New York, as some of his siblings and neighbors had done, but while living in the city where his family was well known. He was predictably outed when he moved to a white neighborhood and sought to enroll his blond, blue-eyed daughter, Isabel, in a white school that rejected her for having “colored blood.” At this point, he could simply have faded away and begun the process elsewhere. Instead, he appealed, first to the school board and then to the courts. The case generated school board minutes, court transcripts, and newspaper records that gave Sharfstein access to a rich and fascinating story that might otherwise have been lost.

Like many of the capital’s leading citizens of color, O.S.B. Wall was the offspring of a slaveholding father and a woman he owned. And like the most fortunate of those mixed-race children, O.S.B. was freed by his father, given a bequest, and sent out of the South to be educated on free soil. In the late summer of 1838, the plantation owner Stephen Wall (for whom the Stephen who passed was later named) arranged for a friend to transport five of his mixed-race children from the Wall farm at Rockingham, North Carolina, to Harveysburg, Ohio, an abolitionist stronghold northeast of Cincinnati. The elder Wall could have chosen any destination for his offspring, but elected to send them to an area settled by militantly abolitionist Quakers who had left North Carolina out of opposition to slavery. The plantation owner wanted his newly transplanted offspring to thrive. To that end, he bequeathed them enough money to make them among the richest people in Harveysburg.

O.S.B. and his younger sister Caroline eventually migrated further north to Oberlin, another hotbed of abolitionism, where Caroline was already enrolled at the college. She soon married a future pillar of Washington’s colored elite, John Mercer Langston, who had also been freed by his father and given an inheritance. O.S.B. married Caroline’s “quite light” Oberlin classmate Amanda Thomas. Sharfstein writes: “By 1858 O.S.B and Amanda Wall had two boys and a girl, all light enough to burn in the sun.”

Oberlin was abolitionist country, but slave catchers were at work in that region, too. The Walls and Langstons were rightly worried that family members might be kidnapped and smuggled into the South. (These fears were heightened by the story of Margaret Garner—the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved—who further south in Cincinnati cut her daughter’s throat rather than surrender her to slave catchers.) Black Oberlin came under siege in 1858, a year after John Mercer Langston had been elected town clerk. The man he defeated was appointed deputy US marshal; he began sending south descriptions of newly arrived blacks and offering to take them into custody for a price.

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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. 1

    David Levering Lewis, District of Columbia: A Bicentennial History (Norton, 1976), p. 71. 

  2. 2

    Near Fight As Citizens Are Jim Crowed,” The Washington Tribune, June 3, 1922; “Colored Folk Defy Jim Crow at Dedication,” The Baltimore Afro-American, June 3, 1922; “Lincoln, Harding, James Crow and Taft,” The Crisis magazine, July 1922. 

  3. 3

    A folk saying in the black American community that was commonly used when I was a child in the 1960s and that is still in currency today. 

  4. 4

    See Jacqueline M. Moore, Leading the Race: The Transformation of the Black Elite in the Nation’s Capital, 1880–1920 (University Press of Virginia, 1999), pp. 190–191. 

  5. 5

    Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman in a White World (G.K. Hall, 1996), p. 306. 

  6. 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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