Amanda Ann Thomas Wall

Biographical Database of Black Women Suffragists

Biography of Amanda Ann Thomas Wall, 1837-1902

By Carol Lasser, Emerita Professor of History, Oberlin College

Educator and suffragist

Born in Loudoun County, Virginia, in 1837, Amanda Ann Thomas lived in Cincinnati with her mother Charlotte before moving in 1854 to Oberlin, Ohio, where Amanda enrolled in Oberlin College. Soon afterwards, Amanda married Orindatus Simon Bolivar (O.S.B.) Wall. The manumitted son of Priscilla, an enslaved North Carolina woman, and her enslaver Stephen Wall, O.S.B. had attended school with his mixed-race siblings and half-siblings in the Quaker settlement of Harveysburg, Ohio. When several of his relatives moved to Oberlin to further their education, O.S.B. followed, opening a local shop selling boots and shoes that he crafted. In this fiercely antislavery town, the Walls joined a dense network of African American abolitionists that included John A. Copeland and Lewis Sheridan Leary, later members of John Brown's insurrection at Harpers Ferry, and John Mercer Langston, husband of O.S.B.'s sister Caroline. In 1858, O.S.B. and 35 other local activists were placed under arrest by federal authorities for forcibly preventing the return to bondage of local freedom seeker John Price in what became known as the "Oberlin-Wellington Rescue."

In 1863 O.S.B. joined his brother-in-law John Mercer Langston in recruiting African Americans for service in the Union forces. Two years later, O.S.B. was among the first men of color to be awarded an officer's commission, becoming a captain in the United States Army. By this time Amanda had given birth to six of the couple's seven children, two of whom died very young.

When the war ended, O.S.B. was stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, where he took up work with the Freedmen's Bureau. Amanda joined him there with an appointment from the American Missionary Association (AMA) to teach at the Avery Institute, the city's pre-eminent institution for students of color. Despite her prominent husband and her Oberlin credentials, Amanda found herself paid significantly less than "other Northern teachers," and she protested: "I wish to do all the good I can among ... Freed people but . . . I do not think gratuitous teaching is required of me or to accept less than others get who do precisely the same work." While in Charleston, she likely met Frances Rollin (later Whipple), a member of the local Black elite and a fellow AMA teacher who subsequently joined with her sisters to organize the first woman suffrage agitation in South Carolina (LINK to sketch of the Rollins sisters).

By 1867 the Wall family had relocated to Washington, D.C. where O.S.B. continued to work for the Freedmen's Bureau and Amanda resumed teaching freed people and served as agent for Frederick Douglass's New National Era. O.S.B. attended Howard Law School, then led by its founding dean John Mercer Langston, and was appointed the first Black Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia; he also briefly served as a police magistrate. Amanda and O.S.B. and their children took their place among the city's emerging "aristocrats of color." They built an elegant house on Howard Hill, near the university and next door to the mansion constructed by John Mercer Langston.

Amanda stood out as an active suffragist in 1869 when she joined other woman's rights supporters, Black and white, in attempting to register to vote. In 1871 Amanda participated in demonstrations in which Frederick Douglass featured prominently; led by Sara Spencer, the protestors were turned away from the office of the city registrar when they attempted to register. Later they were also denied their right to vote. In 1874, Amanda joined Susan B. Anthony and hundreds of women who "placed on record" their support for woman suffrage in Washington, D.C. In subsequent years, the Walls hosted Anthony for dinners at their home.

Although O.S.B. was nearly killed in an assault in 1871, the Walls maintained their high profile in Washington's social and civic life. O.S.B. was elected to the local House of Delegates, and both husband and wife featured prominently at Emancipation Day ceremonies. Amanda also joined with other notable women of color in the District in charitable efforts to relieve the destitute. In later years, despite the couple's struggle for financial security, they were able to send their two youngest daughters to Oberlin for their education.

After suffering a stroke in 1890, O.S.B. died the following year. Amanda died in the District of Columbia in November 1902. Ironically, after Amanda's meager estate was settled, the children of this proud race leader all chose to live as white.


The Merrill-Lawson Papers at the Oberlin College Archive include important material on Amanda Ann Thomas Wall. Daniel J. Sharfstein, The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White (New York: Penguin Press, 2011) follows the Wall family. Especially helpful for events in the District of Columbia is Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). The Wall family also appears in Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser, Elusive Utopia: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Oberlin, Ohio (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018)

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