Thursday, April 26, 2012

Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall (1825-1891)

    Today's profile centers on a very new political name discovery......the wonderfully named Orindatus Simon Bolivar Wall! Wall has the distinction of being the first African-American profiled here on the site, and this unjustly forgotten man forged an interesting political and military career for himself in a time when it was difficult for any black person to receive even the most basic rights, let alone hold public office. Today being the 121st anniversary of his death, Mr. Wall is honored with a profile here not only for his highly unusual name but for his political and military service during the mid 19th century. The rare engraving of him shown above was originally featured in Joseph Thomas Wilson's The Black Phalanx: A History of the Negro Soldiers of the United States, published in 1890 (a year before Wall's death) and this book can be found in its entirety on the website!
  Orindatus (or "OSB", as most sources list him) was born in Richmond County, North Carolina on August 17, 1825, the son of a white plantation owner named Stephen Wall. OSB's mother was one of Stephen's slaves, whose given name was Priscilla. Orindatus's unusual first and middle names are historically based, "Datus" being a Latin deviation for the word "given" and "Simon Bolivar" having come from the famed Venezuelan military and political figure Simon Bolivar (1783-1830).
   OSB Wall was granted his freedom by his father at a young age, and in 1838 was sent by him to Harveysburg, Ohio. A great write up on Wall's life and family, titled The Invisible Line, notes that he was raised and educated in Harveysburg by a family of Quakers. During the 1840s Wall began learning the shoemaking trade and plied his craft in Harveysburg for a few years before removing to nearby Oberlin, Ohio in the early 1850s. 
  The town of Oberlin was then regarded as a haven for the abolitionist movement, and within months of his arrival Wall had reestablished his profession as a cobbler. Also during this time, Wall became prominent in the anti-slavery movement in Oberlin and married here in October 1854. Amanda Thomas Wall was a free woman who was born in Virginia and was later a classmate of OSB's sister Caroline at Oberlin College. Amanda was just seventeen at the time of her marriage to Wall, and this union eventually produced eight children.
  As OSB Wall's family grew throughout the 1850s, so did his professional life. As a prominent cobbler in Oberlin, Wall was afforded an opportunity few blacks had at the time: to make a name for themselves in the realm of business and public affairs. Wall certainly accomplished this with his prosperous shoe-making business, as well as his familiarity with Oberlin abolitionists.
   While Wall's stature in Oberlin is of some note, his role as an early civil rights activist is an integral part of his overall life story. In 1858 he became a pivotal player in the Wellington-Fugitive slave rescue. In this case, a group of Oberlin citizens (including OSB Wall) forcibly rescued John Price, a runaway slave from Kentucky who had been captured by slave catchers. After retrieving Price, Wall and the other rescuers (37 people in total) returned with him to Oberlin and within a few days Price had been spirited away to Canada, thus earning his freedom.
  Despite their heroic actions in John Price's rescue, Wall and the other rescuers were indicted for aiding him under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Nearly all of the rescuers (Wall included) were soon released from custody, and a daguerreotype of these heroic men was taken in front of the Cuyahoga County jail. The aforementioned portrait (originally published in the 1943 work A History of Oberlin College) has been posted below. In this rare photo, OSB Wall stands second from left and can be identified by his top hat.

   In the years following his actions in Oberlin, Wall became an attorney and during the Civil War served as a recruiter for the famed Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry. In March 1865 Wall gained lasting fame when he was commissioned as a Captain in the Union Army, one of the first African Americans to be so honored. In that same year, he was named as a Quartermaster for the newly organized Bureau of Freedman, Refugees and Abandoned Lands, located in Charleston, South Carolina.
  In the 1860s the Wall family relocated to Washington, D.C., where OSB found employment as a police magistrate. He also became active in politics around this time, and in 1872 was elected to the Washington, D.C. Territorial House of Delegates. Wall was re-elected to the legislature the following year, and it is noted in the earlier mentioned The Invisible Line that during his two terms Wall represented a district that had a white majority! A roster from the legislative sessions in which he served has been posted below.

   In addition to his terms in the legislature, Wall served in Washington as a notary public, justice of the peace and president of the Howard Hill Aid Society. He also continued with the practice of law, and was praised in an 1890 edition of the Washington Post as "one of the best known colored lawyers in the city". This same newspaper also mentions that in April of 1890 Wall suffered a paralytic stroke while engaged in work at the police court in Washington. He never fully regained his health and died at age 65 on April 26, 1891, at his home. He was subsequently buried in the Graceland Cemetery in Washington but was exhumed four years after his death and was reburied at the Arlington National Cemetery.


  1. There were over twenty African Americans commissioned a captains before Captain O.S.B. Wall. Among them was Captain P. B. S. Pinchback, who serve as governor of Louisiana for forty-three days. Captain Pinchback was commissioned in September 1862 by General Benjamin F. Butler. Lieutenant Colonel (Brevet) Alexander Augusta was commissioned as a captain by President Lincoln in October 1862.

    Hari Jones, Curator, African American Civil War Museum

    1. Hello Mr. Jones,

      I originally located the notice on Wall being the first commissioned black captain via a small write up for him on the Arlington Cemetery's website (link provided below), so your comments on the twenty or so men who preceded him is a total surprise to me! Thank you for the helpful note, and I'm pleased to see that someone else remembers Pinckney Stewart Benton Pinchback! At some point in the future Mr. Pinchback will have an article of his own here, complete with mention that he was also once of the first commissioned black captains in the Civil War.

      Thank you again for the new information and your interest!


      Link to OSB Wall's gravesite at Arlington: