THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Tracing lives of three ‘white’ families and their black forebears

O.S.B. Wall’s granddaughter Isabel with siblings Ethel Ada and Roscoe Orin. Isabel was expelled from school for being black. O.S.B. Wall’s granddaughter Isabel with siblings Ethel Ada and Roscoe Orin. Isabel was expelled from school for being black. (Photo Courtesy of Lisa Colby)
By Dan Cryer
Globe Correspondent / February 20, 2011

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Randall Lee Gibson, an urbane, Yale-educated Confederate general, mocked black people as “the most degraded of all races of men.’’ Later, as a US senator from Louisiana, he helped broker the end of Reconstruction, freeing the South to harass and lynch blacks virtually at will.

In the 20th century, his orphaned son, Preston, was raised by an aunt and her husband, who had been a justice on the US Supreme Court that legitimated racial segregation in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson.

At the beginning of the 21st century, a rent-a-car employee and genealogy buff dubbed himself Sir Thomas Murphy after tracing his mother’s lineage to English aristocracy. His father’s line remained a mystery.

None of these white people knew that they had African-American ancestors who had “passed for white.’’

Race has always been an inherently unstable construct of nature, culture, and law. Should one be considered black if one grandparent or great-grandparent was black? Or does the “one-drop’’ rule hold, that a single black forebear makes one black? Does “race’’ exist in the eye of the beholder, or solely in the mind of the beheld. In today’s age of mixed-race chic — in which Mariah Carey and Derek Jeter are hailed as beautiful royalty — such questions may seem quaint. But throughout American history, the consequences have been deadly.

“The Invisible Line,’’ Daniel J. Sharfstein’s spellbinding chronicle of racial passing in America, reminds us that the phenomenon has existed since our Colonial beginnings — as escape from oppression, enhancement in status, and path to economic opportunity. However well defined in law, the racial line has always remained porous, breachable under the right conditions.

Sharfstein may be a law professor, at Vanderbilt, but he approaches his subject with a storyteller’s verve and a novelist’s gift for the telling detail. Much like Isabel Wilkerson, in “The Warmth of Other Suns,’’ last year’s acclaimed account of 20th-century black migrations out of the South, he tells the larger story in microcosm, through the prism of family histories.

What Senator Gibson did not know was that his great-grandfather Gideon Gibson was a free man of color, and a substantial landowner and slaveholder, who led the “Regulators’’ to a successful back-country revolt in Colonial South Carolina. To his peers, the author contends, Gideon Gibson was neither black nor white but merely rich and respected. His marriage to a white woman further blanched his progeny, and their relocation to Mississippi and Louisiana allowed the family’s African-American past to fade away altogether.

Alongside the upper-class Gibsons, Sharfstein follows two very different clans: the Walls, middle-class strivers of Ohio and Washington, D.C., and the Spencers, hardscrabble Kentucky farmers and laborers. Passing, the author underscores, took place at every class level.

O.S.B. Wall, an ancestor of Sir Thomas, is one of this story’s most intriguing characters. Offspring of a North Carolina planter and his slave, Wall was emancipated as a boy and grew up among Ohio abolitionists. He became as fierce an opponent of the racial status quo as the later Gibsons were its ardent defenders. During the Civil War he was named the first black captain in the US Army and, afterward, an agent with the Freedmen’s Bureau and the first black magistrate in the District of Columbia.

Sharfstein’s you-are-there approach to history produces dozens of vivid set pieces — Wall rescuing an escaped slave from slave catchers; Gideon Gibson taunting the commander of South Carolina’s militia; Senator Gibson delighting in owning the mansion once occupied by President Lincoln’s secretary of war.

In every case, the author clarifies the context that makes each family’s progression from black to white unique. The Spencers, eking out a living in Appalachia’s hills, sprang from the union of a freed slave and a white wife. Their son, Jordan, a hard-working laborer, was eventually able to buy land and earn the respect of his white neighbors. His race “became something people knew was there but had stopped seeing.’’

When one of his sons, who had migrated to Virginia, was called a “Negro,’’ he sued for slander and lost. The state’s highest court ordered a retrial, but it probably never took place, as the community decided to let matters drop. Over time, the Spencers, who had intermarried with numerous whites, stepped across the color line for good.

Each of the Wall offspring, faced with a hostile white world, declined to take up their father’s battle for civil rights. And who can blame them? The white press increasingly caricatured the once highly regarded O.S.B. Wall as a laughingstock. Bigotry blocked his son Stephen from promotions at the US Printing Office, and he lost a court battle to enroll his daughter in a white school. Little wonder that Stephen changed his surname to Gates, moved away and reinvented himself as a white man.

“The Invisible Line’’ is not only a work of serious scholarship based on exhaustive archival research but an immensely satisfying read. The only dissatisfaction comes from acknowledging the pain, shame, and anger that forced some Americans to deny part of who they really were.

Dan Cryer is author of “Being Alive and Having to Die: The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church,’’ to be published this fall by St. Martin’s. he can be reached through his website, www.dancryer.org.

THE INVISIBLE LINE: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White By Daniel J. Sharfstein

Penguin, 396 pp.,

illustrated, $27.95