Skip to main content

tv   [untitled]    June 4, 2012 12:00am-12:30am EDT

12:00 am
relationship with other organis organisms. >> history in the past has been taught as a series of personalities and more of events rather than, say, factors including the environment, topography, climate. >> certainly, if you were to talk about the history of history broadly, the farther back you go, the more impulse is to see history in terms of the role of single individuals or great leaders. abraham lincoln can tell the story of the civil war through one person. there's been a greater and greater tendency among professional historians to think about groups of people, institutions, large processes, but often before environmental history, non-human things were not much a part of that. so we can talk about the history of the supreme court, the history of the congress, or the history of the standard oil
12:01 am
company. we wouldn't always situate them in their larger natural context. that's been the contribution of environmental historians. next on american history tv, daniel sharfstein discusses the complexity of race in america and one family's perceived transformation from black to white. the new york historical society hosted this hour-long event. >> good evening, everyone. good to be back here. my home away from home. lovely new room. we're going to start -- what's the matter? [ laughter ] >> we're going to start by
12:02 am
taking a little trip back in time. we're going to a day in april in 1922. on the mall in washington somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people have gathered for the dedication of the lincoln memorial. there are parades, survivors from the civil war, people drove, they walked. there was an air of festivity throughout the town. as you know at the time you may not know in this history, washington is itself also in addition to be in the seat of government, washington is the seat of the black elite of america. the black people who served in reconstruction governments in the south were driven out after the collapse of reconstruction, and many of them retreated to
12:03 am
washington, d.c. we have there a pbs pinch back of lieutenant-governor of louisiana who comes there, the gentleman who was the senator from mississippi blanch k. bruce. we have many, many celebrities there. we have also howard university, which is the real seat of the black intelligence, too. so we have this town. we have this big celebration. people turn up to dedicate the memorial. the black elites who turn up, and they walk up to the platform area, because their tickets say platform, get there and they're turned away. they're turned away to a segregated seating area about a block away, and it's a weedy area where there are rough hewn benches. the grass hasn't been cut. you must understood, these are
12:04 am
law professors, judges, intellectuals. many of them turn on their heels and leave. one of them who temporarily takes a seat is a former collector of customs at georgetown. he and his wife. he's a famous black government official. he's taking a seat, and they're cordoned off and presided over by uniformed marines. he's having a seat because he's making up his mind whether he's going to stay. the marine says to him, you should move to the center to make room for other people. he sits back and thinks about it. the marine says you ought to think damn quick about moving. the segregated section erupts in protest. the black elite of washington, baltimore, they all stalk out. you can read accounts of the dedication of the lincoln memorial in the mainstream white newspapers.
12:05 am
you will find no reference to that whatsoever. if you read the black newspapers, the baltimore african-american, chicago defender, the atlanta daily world, and especially the pittsburgh courier, it is front page news, because not only has the government enforced segregation offended the flower of black culture in america, it has done so at the contraction -- contradictory moment of the great emancipator's celebration. that is our day in april of 1922. across town a man didn't come that way, and daniel knows that man. across town there is a guy named steven wahl. he's been working at the government printing office for all of his career. he's either retired or about to
12:06 am
retire. he's lived in washington from the time that it was a haven for black people on to a time when it became completely hostile where they couldn't eat in restaurants, they couldn't stay in hotels, they were driven from government jobs. i can imagine why steven wahl might not have attended the celebration that day, because he had a bitter, bitter experience. he's been driven up out of his job three times by democratic administrations. so daniel, tell us about steven, what he might have been thinking that day, and the path it took him to that moment. >> it's very interesting. when steven wahl was living in georgetown in 1922, he was somebody who resembled less the -- or at least tried to resemble lest the people on the flat form that day, and more like archie bunker.
12:07 am
when he was in georgetown, whenever an african-american would move on to his block, he would -- would move to a different neighborhood. he was convinced that property values would go down. he actually had changed his name from steven wahl to steven gates, and he was not at the celebration that day because he was living very much as a white man. that was a decision that he made. once he retired from the government printing office, that was the last tie he had to anyone who identified him as an african-american. and when he made that decision to become white, it was a decision that initially was very difficult for him. he had come from a family that had helped build black washington after the civil war.
12:08 am
you know, for his family -- when his father first came to washington, d.c., 1867, not only was the lincoln memorial not built, but the washington monument was only half-finished. there is so much that was left to be done in washington. >> as you say, washington was just a muddy, half-made town. >> yes. it was a place where pigs ran in the streets, and maybe pigs still do run in the streets. figuratively speaking. and it was a place where there was a tremendous amount of possibility for african-americans. and the wahl family come to -- his father, o.s.b.wahl.
12:09 am
he was a man whose -- that very name walked the line between slave and free. that first name, orendodus, was a slave's name. it had the kind of grandiosity -- >> slave masters almost always did that, yeah. >> he had been born in the 1820s on a north carolina plantation. he was the child of a slave owner who never married but had many children with three women whom he owned. >> tell us a little bit about him. >> first name is a slave name. the second name is simon boullivier. unclear how he acquired the name of the liberator.
12:10 am
his father was someone who -- he -- i mean, he was someone who freed his children. he had many children. he freed them all. he sent them to ohio to be raised by radical quaker abolitionists. he knew the abolitionists, and he gave them a lot of money. they raised his children. >> let me add one parenthetical here. in fact, the black elite of washington of whom i spoke at the outset, many, many, many, many, if not the majority, were mixed race persons. many, many of them were children and grand children of slavemasters and slave women. hence, the look of the near-white black elite at that point. o.s.b. wahl is also one of those people. >> yes. and he winds up in the 1850s,
12:11 am
he's raised by these abolitionists and trains to become a shoemaker. he decides to move from a small town outside of cincinnati to overland, ohio, which is in the 1850s was the most abolitionist place in america. >> a hotbed, yes. >> a true hotbed. it was a place where the first african-american is elected to political office. his brother-in-law, john mercer langston, and he is -- o.s.b. wahl establishes a reputation for two things. one for his ardent activism as an anti-slavery political activist and second he gets a reputation for having what one of one observer calmed a trumpet tongued way with words. he was a really great speaker
12:12 am
and was actually wickedly funny. in the late 1850s he was actually indicted for violating the fugitive slave act. >> that's a great passage of the book, by the way. >> he helps -- he takes part in a vigilante action to free a captive. there had been a fugitive slave who had been captured by kentucky slave catchers, and a group of overland abolitionists surrounded the slave captors and basically freed the man and whisked him off to canada. o.s.b. wahl was among about three dozen men who were indicted. he wound up being freed, however, because the indictment misspelled his first name. all through his life people were getting orendodus wrong, and as
12:13 am
someone who has the last name sharfstein, i can relate. so when the civil war started, o.s.b. wahl recruited hundreds of troops for the massachusetts 54th and other black regiments, and in the waning days of the war he was commissioned a captain in the union army. he headed to south carolina. he was put up in a confiscated house of a confederate official. very soon after he arrived in south carolina, the war ended, and he transferred to the freed there was the bureau of refugees and abandoned lands. really it was the first big government agency in american history. >> whose role was to sbeg grate former slaves into society. >> there was the emancipation proclamation and the 13th amendment declared that
12:14 am
african-americans were slaves no more and they were free. the big question for everyone is how free is free. what the freed man's bureau tried to do is give meaning to freedom and give meaning to give new meaning to and new meaning to what government could do for its citizens. wahl worked in south carolina for the friedman's bureau. he wound up running for the legislature, the territorial legislature in washington. was elected twice from a majority white district. then in 1874 the vote was taken away from african-americans and he -- he studied at howard
12:15 am
university law school and spent the rest of his life as a lawyer. now, for him, he moved to washington, d.c. and he had his children educated in howard university's lab schools, which were the only integrated schools in washington. he raised his children. he raised steven wahl, raised stephen wahl's brother and sisters to expect any kind of -- any right, any opportunity that any other american could expect. >> another parenthetical, we have this gentleman -- i have to go back, because you skipped one of my favorite parts. o.s.b. wahl, an abolitionist, they're risking their lives and not to mention their livelihoods to rescue escaped slaves. when these guys back in overland rescued this one slave, they become kind of celebrities.
12:16 am
who shows up in jail to visit them? john brown. a fearsome cat shows up. back to washington. so o.s.b. wahl comes to washington and starts a political career. he sits in the legislature. he becomes the first black justice of the peace. they call him judge from then on. then we see, we see that washington begins to take that inevitable turn toward profound, deep disenfranchisement of blacks and profound segregation. so what is happening for the wahls, which, you know, an elite family, what's happening for the wahls is that their world is becoming circumscribed. places they cannot go. places they cannot eat. during the period of segregation, as some of us were old enough to have been born
12:17 am
then, that the black elites entertained in their homes almost exclusively, when they traveled they stayed in the homes of other blacks because they didn't have public accommodations. tell us about the home, the parties of wahls. >> sure. the wahls had a big, beautiful house that was right next to howard university. >> they sent his children to the schools that howard ran. o.d.b. wahl was asked by general otis howard, the namesake for howard university, to recruit the first undergraduates for the university. this was an institution that wahl really took pride in building. and their home was a beautiful house and right next door to
12:18 am
john mercer langston's humes. >> langston hughes' great-uncle. >> yes. they could look out onto the street and say, that tree was planted by the great abolitionist, charles sumner. this tree was a gift from another great abolitionist. so this was an amazing block. and he had -- you know, the people who had come to his home and the spent time with him and with his children were amazing. so there was john mercer langston, who was the first dean of the howard university law school and later was the first african-american elected to congress from virginia. but he was family. frederick douglas was someone -- >> not bad dinner company. >> frederick douglas was a frequent guest.
12:19 am
susan b. anthony and o.s.b. wahl and his wife amanda wahl were not just civil rights activists, but they were really suffrage activists for the vote for women. so in 1870 this was a time when susan b. anthony was arrested for trying to vote in the congressional election. amanda wahl also was marching to the registrar of voters and demanded to be registered to vote. so susan b. anthony was there, and i think the wahls were embarrassed by one of the o.s.b. wahl's sisters who was an opponent of suffrage for women because she thought it was unfeminine. but o.s.b. wahl, amanda wahl, john mercer langston's wife, carrie wahl langston, they were suffrage activists.
12:20 am
>> i importune you to read this. when we see these dinner gatherings and just the luminaries of the people that were there, we see a galaxy of activists and people we all know, we see an interracial environment and don't see segregation inside the home. indeed, at one point wahl invites to his home a young man who is a white cousin on the slave side of the family. they have a high time, and the young man writes home that had never been in a finer home or met finer people. >> and his cousins never forgave him for that. >> that's true. you talk about that, the night at the wahl home on howard hill is a spectacular thing. there's music, conversation, internationally known names, the
12:21 am
daytime is different, is it not? >> yes. so when wahl is practicing law, he is basically scraping for clients in the -- in the criminal courts in washington. and you know, life for any african-american and life for an african-american who had known the kind of power and society that o.s.b. wahl had known was a life of continuing indignity. so the prosecutor was constantly disparaging his work. the judges were discourteous to him. one thing that was very interesting to see was not only the fact that, you know, i followed him over many decades, and you can see his idealism and
12:22 am
his spiriting kurdling a little bit. at the same time when he's in court and people attack him and ait can his character, he is constantly defending himself in very strong terms and also in -- with some very strong actions. people say things that suggest he is a dishonorable person, and whether they were white, whether they were black, he would just slap them across the face. >> i have a personal story that my family and i told daniel before we came on, during the dna phase, i had my dna taken to do the test. my family, of course, carries a
12:23 am
very strong tradition, so i knew na my grand-grandfathers on both sides were white, the slavemasters who had their way enslaved women. so i got my dna back, and i'm only half sub-sa saharan africa, which is about right in that. so what you see here -- the one thing that you want to see here, people like wahl. many of whom were half-white or even more, sometimes some were three-quarters. some were barely discernibly black when you had the tutored eye. put yourself in wahl's place for a second. justice of the peace. member. legislator, educated person, man
12:24 am
of substance, man of power in the community and suddenly all your rights were taken away, and you become a penny ante lawyer digging around in the jail cell for a client who can't even pay your $5 fee. what happens then is what happened to many of the black elite families or we sometimes call it the near-white elite families of d.c. and charleston and new orleans, is that black people begin to defect. they begin to become white. how does this play out in his family? >> sure. i mean, you see these laws on one level putting african-americans on a different platform, the lincoln memorial dedication, but on another level these laws turn black people into white people. so o.s.b. wahl's children start disappearing one by one. one moves to montreal, marries a french woman. two sisters move to new york, and one keeps an all-white
12:25 am
boarding house on the upper westside. another winds up living on long island. she fancies herself a feminist and publishes a pamphlet. she talks about herself as a white person. talks about her interactions with black people. the closest you get to understanding that she is o.s.b. wahl's daughter is when she says she keeps a picture of abraham lincoln on her mirror. and then there's steven wahl. >> so steven was the last? he's the last colored wahl, is he not? >> right.
12:26 am
so he -- the last of o.s.b. wahl's line. so he stays in the howard hill neighborhood for a long time, and then the children decide that they want to sell the house. you know, you have the parents that have died, the children all own it together. they decide to sell the house. they sell the house. it's razed, and a segregated school is built on the site. and with that money with his share steven wahl moves to a different neighborhood near catholic university. and he decides he's not going to change his name and he continues to work at the government printing office where everyone knows he's african-american. he's going to become white by
12:27 am
keeping ms. mouth shut, and it works for a little while. >> this is an interesting thing because i was telling daniel those of us who are black, especially of my age born in world war ii, all of us pn a friend orel tifl who moved across the color line to become white and was lost to us. we describe people having a past or lost to the family people leave family force lots of different reasons. people that become white, once they become white and they can no longer be seen in public with us and can no longer really risk -- especially if they have good jobs, if they're lawyering in white firms, working at an all-white banking, working at, say, the new yorker -- no, just
12:28 am
coincidental. they cannot be seen with us. so this is for us a loss. this is a source of pain and such a pain to us. and but the thing about it is that we mourn them because the word passed means synonym for dead. we mourn them because we can no longer see them again. what's so moving about your story of steven wahl, we see him for a long time trying to tenaciously hold on to his colored ancestors. they called them colored at that point. his father was the first black commissioned captain in the civil war, the first everything in washington, and to some extent, he's trying to hold on to it. but at some point, he makes a decision that he's tired of sitting on the back of the bus, and he builds himself a beautiful house in a brooklyn neighborhood. he goes there, marries a white
12:29 am
wife. goes there with his blond, blue-eyed daughter, and enrolls her in public school. and what happens then, of course, comes a knock on the door. right? people who know -- because had he followed his brother and moved to canada and followed his sisters and moved to new york, it would have been different. he tried to make this transition in the town where his name was well-known. comes a knock on the door, and he's exposed. and that exposure is painful to him, but it's sort of the grace of god for us because we would never know this story other than that. is that not correct? >> yeah. you know, in part because of the way he reacted to this. when his daughter was kicked out of the first grade for being black and rumors started flying -- >> a blonde, blue-eyed girl is kicked out for being black. go ahead.

48 Views

info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on