Daniel J. Sharfstein: A Hero of African American History Whose Story is Forgotten Because His Descendants Decided They Were White





[Daniel J. Sharfstein is an associate professor of law at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White.]

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.O.S.B. Wall in Joseph T. Wilson, The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States (1890). Click image to expand.O.S.B. Wall in Joseph T. Wilson's The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States (1890).

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....


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