Little 7-year-old Isabel Wall, blonde and blue-eyed, bounced along beside her mother as they walked the two blocks from their home at 1019 Kearny Street to the Brookland School at 10th and Monroe. Isabel was to be enrolled in the first grade.
The principal, Mary Little, asked some basic questions and then filled out the form to admit the child and let her begin classes. It wasn’t to last. Ten days later, she withdrew the admission, due to “information subsequently obtained.” The information? School officials had heard that Isabel’s father, Stephen, though he was light-skinned and had a white wife, was in reality a black man. The Brookland School was for whites only.
The racial information likely came from the Brookland Citizens Association, a group whose racist proclivities were coming into full flower. They had been fighting against locating a school for African American children in the neighborhood since 1900, and they kept their eyes open for any encroachment into their white realm. Earlier that year the neighborhood’s movers and shakers at the Brookland Baptist Church (left, DC Public Library), had invited Isabel and her siblings to attend their Sunday School. They went for a month until the whispers began, coming from nosy neighbors or members of the Brookland Citizens Association. Then the family was asked to either declare themselves as white or to no longer attend the church.
Deciding not to fight, the Wall family quietly withdrew from the church. They had largely been perceived as a white family in the neighborhood and were worried about drawing too much notice. But now that the Brookland School and Isabel’s education was involved, Stephen Wall decided it was time to resist. The confrontation that followed would touch on deeply held beliefs and prejudices. What makes a person white? Or black? What, indeed, do we really know about differences between the races? The story of little Isabel Wall would reverberate and make headlines locally and beyond. (right, headlines from The Washington Herald, October 10, 1909.)
I was led to this story through Sarah Shoenfeld at Prologue DC, who read about the Wall family in a 2011 book, The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America, by Daniel Sharfstein. The book is a fascinating look at three families who crossed the color line from black to white. Extensively researched, in it Sharfstein probes Stephen Wall’s heritage and uncovers a surprising story.
Stephen Wall’s grandfather, also named Stephen (left, from family album), had been a wealthy white plantation owner and slaveholder in Rockingham, North Carolina in the early 19th century. He never married, but fathered many children with some of his enslaved women. He named one of his sons Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall, a combination of a classical “slave” name with that of a South American freedom fighter. No one could easily pronounce or remember it, so after a time he was referred to by the much easier appellation O.S.B. Wall.
In 1836 Stephen Wall sold a dozen of his enslaved workers to an owner in Alabama, knowing that their life in the deep south would be worse than in North Carolina. Two years later, perhaps feeling some remorse, he decided to send five of his mixed race children to Ohio, free territory, where their lives could be substantially improved with the modest endowment he provided. They were taken in by abolitionist Quakers and brought to Harveysburg, Ohio, where they were provided with decent homes, food, and education.
O.S.B. Wall decided to take up shoemaking, and also started an abolitionist society. He soon moved to anti-slavery hotspot Oberlin, where his sister had enrolled at the college. There he married a young girl named Amanda Thomas, established himself as a tradesman, and eventually became a successful farm owner and planter. The couple began having children, including a son they named after O.S.B.’s father, Stephen. Wall also became a noted figure in Oberlin’s abolitionist movement when he joined the Oberlin Rescuers in an act of civil defiance in 1858 that saved a runaway slave. It was to become an important moment in abolitionist history in the pre-Civil War years.
When the Civil War began, Wall and his brother-in-law, John Mercer Langston, began recruiting African American soldiers, even though Ohio was not yet allowing them to serve. Other states were however, and the two men helped fill up the ranks of the famed 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. When Ohio finally allowed black soldiers, the two recruited men for what became the 5th Regiment United States Colored Troops. In early 1865, Wall was made a captain, the first regularly commissioned African American captain in the nation’s history.
In 1865 Wall was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, arriving just as the war was ending. Optimistic at first about the future for African Americans, he soon came to understand that white power would not give up easily and equitable reconstruction was on shaky ground. He moved to Washington DC in 1867, working for the Freedmen’s Bureau. For a short time after the war, the national capital became a haven for African Americans, a refuge with the possibility of jobs and housing and voting rights, which could translate into political power.
Wall built his home just north of Boundary Road (Florida Ave.) and close by the newly built Howard University. Then in 1869, President Grant appointed him the first African American justice of the peace in the District (right, item from The National Republican, April 2, 1869), where he also served as a local police magistrate. He started attending Howard University’s new law school, and soon would set up a practice. O.S.B. Wall had become part of the city’s new black elite.
But the promise Washington held for black enfranchisement withered quickly when voting rights were lost in 1874. For the next two decades, O.S.B. Wall’s fortunes and reputation rose and fell depending on which political party was in power. Democrats had yet to shake their white supremacist leanings, and whenever in power they worked hard to rein in African American advancement. As Reconstruction failed and was replaced by onerous anti-black laws, African Americans in important posts saw their power curtailed, their incomes stunted, their prospects clouded.
Over the years, O.S.B. Wall had developed an extensive network of friends in both the white and black communities that proved essential to his survival. He knew everyone, from Frederick Douglass to Oliver Otis Howard. He was able to get jobs for his sons, including one for Stephen at the Government Printing Office, a good position as a compositor. There were a number of other African Americans working at the GPO, but their status was politically precarious. When a new Democratic administration arrived, a sudden reduction in force was deemed necessary and most of the African American workers, including Stephen Wall, were fired. While O.S.B. leaned on his connections to get his son reinstated, Stephen opened a cigar shop-cum-pool hall in the Shaw neighborhood.
O.S.B. Wall had a stroke in 1890, collapsing in the courtroom. Enfeebled, he held on long enough to see Stephen finally reinstated at the Government Printing Office in March of 1891. O.S.B. Wall died a month later. Although he had considerable financial, professional and physical challenges over the years, at the end of his life Wall was considered a leading light of the black community in Washington. Originally buried at Graceland Cemetery, which primarily served the District’s African Americans, he was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery in 1894.
With the death of O.S.B Wall, and of his wife a decade later, their children faced a new and difficult world. They had been raised and educated among whites and had expectations of an equality that never arrived once the post-war embrace of civil rights disintegrated. That caused Stephen Wall and his brother and sisters to move further away from the black identities that had thus far been a foundation of their lives. In The Invisible Line, Daniel Sharfstein put it this way:
The harder whites made it for blacks to earn a living, educate their children, and just make it through a single day without threat or insult, the greater the incentives grew for light-skinned blacks to leave their communities and establish themselves as white. If anything, the drumbeat for racial purity, the insistence that any African ancestry—a single drop of blood—tainted a person’s very existence, accelerated the migration to new identities and lives. The difference between white and black seemed obvious, an iron-clad rule, a biological fact. But the Walls knew that blacks could be as good as whites and as bad, as smart and as stupid. Blacks had just as much claim to schooling and jobs and love and family, to common courtesies each day. The Walls knew that blacks could be every bit the equal of whites—and that their skins could be equally light. As the United States veered from slavery to Jim Crow, O.S.B. Wall’s children did not stand up and fight. They faded away.
For Stephen Wall, that produced a strange dichotomy in his life. During the day at the printing office he was a black man. At night in Brookland he was white. It wasn’t so much a matter of declaring his color to his neighbors as not disabusing them of their assumptions. Crossing the color line from black to white was a popular trope in books, plays, and newspapers at the turn of the last century, and was not an uncommon occurence for light-skinned African Americans. Although accepted by many in the black community, “passing” could raise vociferous indignation as well. The Washington Bee, a local African American newspaper, ran editorials decrying the practice, but also ran advertisements for skin lightening creams (above, ad from 1909 Washington Bee). Mostly it was talked about in whispers, as was the case with Stephen Wall and his family. But now, with his decision to fight the ruling barring his daughter from school, a bright light was going to shine on him and his heritage. He didn’t shy away from the confrontation this time, but made a bold declaration:
“The burden of proof is on them. If they believe I have negro blood, very good. Let them prove it. For my part, I only know the law compels me to send my child to a public school, and that I have obeyed the law.”
Challenging school officials to prove his race was a dangerous gambit, since it would not be difficult to do. Stephen Wall’s records at the Government Printing Office listed him as “negro.” Residents of his old neighborhood near Howard University knew his family heritage well. As Daniel Sharfstein points out, “Wall was not arguing that he was white or, for that matter, that his daughter was white. Nor was he arguing that segregation was wrong. Rather, he was asserting a right not to admit his race and not to be classified as black without evidence provided by the government.”
It was not a winning strategy. The school superintendent, A.T. Stuart, upheld the school principal’s decision. The Walls then wrote to the Board of Education requesting an appeal. There was no response. Wall hired a lawyer who threatened a writ of mandamus to force the board to act. The board did meet and affirmed the expulsion decision. The lone dissent was from civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell.
Wall then filed suit for Isabel’s readmittance in District Court, which began an investigation. Judge Daniel Thew Wright presided as a number of witnesses testified that Isabel’s grandfather “O.S.B. Wall was regarded as a colored man,” and that Stephen Wall had operated a “colored pool-room.” Both Stephen and his wife Lillie also testified, with Lillie insisting she was indeed white when Justice Wright seemed skeptical. (right, Isabel Wall at top, with her younger siblings Russell and Ethel. Photo from Wall family album, courtesy of Larissa Clayton.)
Then came another Board of Education hearing. The Brookland Citizens Association asked to testify, “with an avowed determination to contend ‘to the last ditch’ for the little girl’s exclusion from the public schools for white children.” They were denied. The only witness was Isabel Wall, now 8 years old. John Ridout, Stephen Wall’s lawyer, based his defense on appearance alone, in essence asking the board whether Isabel looked like a black child to them. “No human being could look at that beautiful little child and not admit instinctively that so far as personal appearances is concerned she is a white child,” he declared.
White citizens during that period tended to believe in the “one-drop rule,” meaning that if someone had a black ancestor, they too were black, no matter how far back the association went. One drop of African blood was all it took. The Brookland Citizens Association certainly felt that way about Isabel Wall. The Board of Education agreed, and in the end so did Justice Wright, ruling that “persons of whatever complexion, who bear negro blood in whatever degree and who abide in the racial status of the Negro, are ‘colored’ in the common estimation of the people.”
The story had now gained national scope. Most newspapers provided a straightforward report, while a few, like the St. Louis Dispatch, added some editorial emotion:
Stephen Wall, exasperated, filed an appeal of the court ruling. Six months later, the Appeals Court affirmed Justice Wright’s decision. There was some talk about taking the case to the Supreme Court to force a legal definition of what makes a person black. But Stephen Wall was done. All of Brookland now knew his full family story, and he no longer felt he could stay. He sold his house, picked up his family and began moving around the city, from neighborhood to neighborhood, where once again he could be black at work and white at home. They eventually landed in Georgetown in 1920. Stephen Wall changed his name to Steven Gates, his wife and children adopting new identities as well. Isabel did wind up going to white schools, but not in Brookland, and not as Isabel Wall but as Lillian Isabel Gates.
Stephen Wall kept his job (and his name) at the Government Printing Office until he reached mandatory retirement in 1922. He then became Steven Gates full time, and Stephen Wall ceased to exist. He died in 1934.
As the years rolled by the Brookland trauma was forgotten and Stephen Wall’s children continued their white life. When author Daniel Sharfstein contacted Wall’s descendants when he was researching his book, they were surprised to learn of Stephen Wall’s racial transformation. His story, and the story of O.S.B. Wall, had faded from family lore.
That is one of the many misfortunes in this little piece of history. O.S.B. Wall never gained the stature he should have had as an early leader of black resistance and pride. And Stephen Wall and his siblings traded in a life as a respected black family for one clinging to the fringe of the white middle class.
As Isabel Wall’s granddaughter said in an interview with Daniel Sharfstein, “Most families have one skeleton in the closet. My family has more skeletons than they have living bodies . . . It’s a big, big, big, big thing to chew over and swallow and try to understand.”
Yes it is, but understanding the past can provide the path to a more just future. It’s time we all took that journey.
This post couldn’t have been written without the extensive research undertaken by Daniel Sharfstein. I highly recommend his book, The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America, to anyone interested in the story of race relations in this country. I owe Professor Sharfstein my thanks not only for his beautifully written book, but for arranging permission for my use of the Wall family photos.
Newspapers covered the story extensively throughout 1909-1910. Here are some of the major ones:
“May Bar Young Girl From School,” Washington Herald, October 10,1909
“Classed as Negro,” Evening Star, May 27, 1910
“Sixteenth Blood Defined as Negro by District Court,” Washington Times, June 7, 1910
“Wall Child Colored,” Washington Post,” June 8, 1910
“Because She is 1/128 Negro,” St.Louis Dispatch, July 10, 1910
“Negro Definition Fought By Father,” Washington Times, September 8, 1910
“Justice Shepherd Finds Wall Girl Ranks as Negro,” Washington Bee, December 10, 1910