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4176Historical Moment: Focus on 'Anita Hemmings'

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  • multiracialbookclub
    Dec 3, 2011


      Passing as White:

      The story of 'Anita Hemmings'
      --- Vassar College, Class of 1897

      When Anita Florence Hemmings applied to Vassar in 1893,
      --- there was nothing in her records to indicate that
      she would be any "different" from the 103 other
      girls who were entering the class of 1897.

      But by August 1897, the world as well as
      the college had discovered her "secret": 

      Anita Hemmings was Vassar's first "colored" graduate — 
      more than 40 years before the collegeopened its doors to 
      [any peoplewho were of the largely Mixed-Race Ethnic
      group known today by the misnomer of African-American


      In the late 19th century, Vassar's atmosphere
      might have been best described as aristocratic.

      Since its opening in 1861, the prestigious women's school had
      catered almost exclusively to the daughters of the nation's elite.

      Had Hemmings marked her "race" as 'colored' on
      her application, her admittance to the college
      most certainly would have been denied.

      -- "She has a clear olive complexion, heavy
      black hair and eyebrows and coal black eyes,"
      a Boston newspaper wrote of a
      25-year-old Hemmings in August 1897.
      -- "The strength of her strain of white blood has
      so asserted itself that she could "pass" anywhere
      simply as 'a pronounced brunette of white race'."

      And "pass" she did, until her white roommate
      voiced "suspicions" about Hemmings' background
      to her own father only a few weeks
      before the class was due to graduate.

      The father hired a private investigator to
      travel to Hemmings' hometown of Boston.

      There it was discovered that homemaker Dora Logan and
      custodian Robert Williamson Hemmings had "conspired"
      with their daughter to keep her "race" a secret.

      -- "We know our daughter went to Vassar
      as a white girl and stayed there as such.
      As long as she conducted herself as a lady
      she never thought it necessary to proclaim
      the fact that her parents were Mulattoes,"
      Hemmings' father told newspaper reporters
      when 'the story' broke later that summer.

      Hemmings had proven herself an impressive student, mastering Latin,
      ancient Greek, and French, and, as a soprano in the college choir, had
      been invited to sing solo recitals at the local churches in Poughkeepsie.

      She was described by her classmates as an "exotic beauty,"
      and many believed her heritage was Native American.

      No minutes survive from the board meetings that were held
      to determine Hemmings' fate, but the Providence Journal 
      reported that a "crestfallen" Hemmings appealed
      to college President "Prexy" Taylor, "with the
      result that the girl was awarded her diploma." 

      "[She] took a prominent part in the exercises of class 
      day, and no one who saw the class of '97 leave the
      shades of Vassar suspected "Negro blood" in one
      woman voted the class beauty," said the Journal.

      That Hemmings would have attempted to pass through Vassar's
      gate as a white woman was not unusual 'for the time period',
      said Joyce Bickerstaff, Vassar Africana studies professor.

      Bickerstaff happened upon Hemmings' file in 1989 while
      conducting research in Vassar Libraries' Special Collections.

      -- "There were large numbers of [members of the Ethnic group 
      known today by the term of 
      African-American] at that time 
      and into the turn of the century [for whom passing] 
      was a means to gain opportunities in education," 
      said Bickerstaff, who is now working on a book about 
      the Hemmings family, tentatively titled Dark Beauty. 
      -- "The country was under laws of segregation, and those families 
      who had risen to that level of educational aspiration or economics 
      were still excluded from most of the elite institutions."

      -- "Passing" has typically opened doors to more than just
      education, said Africana Studies Chair Gretchen Gerzina.
      -- "You get benefits economically and professionally and financially in 
      terms of housing, jobs, and all those things denied to you," she said. 
      -- "People who want good jobs, who want opportunities, "pass". 
      -- That doesn't mean they "pass" in their private lives, 
      but they use it to 'have access to opportunities'."

      Hemmings, heartbroken by "the scandal", returned to her
      old neighborhood in Boston after graduating from Vassar.

      She worked for several years as a
      cataloguer in the Boston Public Library.

      In 1903, she married Dr. Andrew Jackson Love,
      a physician practicing in New York City.

      The couple settled in Manhattan and
      lived as 'mono-racial' White people.

      Like his wife, Love had been "passing" for years.

      A graduate of a HIBMCU (Meharry Medical
      College in Tennessee), Love instead listed his
      alma mater as Harvard University Medical School.

      -- "Those who pass have a severe dilemma before they decide to do so,
      since a person must give up all family ties and loyalties to [their former
      communities] in order to gain economic and other opportunities,"
      wrote scholar F. James Davis in his book, Who Is Black?

      In some families, the ties to "black roots" have been so long broken
      that later generations are shocked to discover their real heritage.

      Such was the case with Hemmings' great-granddaughter, Jillian Sim.

      Sim, now a writer working on a book about her family,
      did not discover the family secret until 1994, when
      she was informed by a friend of her grandmother's.

      She described her reaction to the news in
      her essay "Fading to White," published in 
      American Heritage (February/March 1999).

      -- "I was surprised by how little 'surprise' I felt…
      I have reddish brown hair, and it is very fine.
      I have blue eyes, and you can easily see
      the blue veins under my pale-yellow skin.
      I was ignorant enough to think of "blackness"
      in the arbitrary way most of white society does:
      One must have a darker hue to one's skin to be
      [a person with some amount of] "black" [lineage].
      I look about as "black" as Heidi."

      With secrecy of utmost importance, there are no numbers 
      to indicate how many [people who were member of the 
       Ethnic grouping and had Mixed-Race
      Lineage had] crossed over to the white world to search 
      for better chances, but the practice is well documented..

      In the late 1920s, Nella Larsen [a biracial author of Black/White
      lineage] published two novels for which she would become 
      known as a respected author of the Harlem Renaissance. 

      Product Details  Product Details

       (1927) and Passing (1929) both
      deal with the psychology of racial "passing".

      -- "It's funny about `passing.' 
      We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it.
      It excites our contempt, and yet we rather admire it.
      We shy away from it with an odd
      kind of repulsion, but we protect it," says
      Passing protagonist Irene to her husband, Brian.

      Irene — who is light-skinned enough to "pass"
      but doesn't try to — is confronted with the practice
      when she runs into a friend from her old neighborhood, Clare.

      Clare is married to a white man who has
      no idea his wife is [of any part] black [lineage].

      Cut off completely from her old friends and family,
      Clare latches on to Irene as a link to her past life.

      -- "For I am so lonely, so lonely,"
      she writes to Irene, begging to see her.
      -- "You can't know how in this pale life of mine
      I am ll the time seeing the bright pictures of that
      other I once thought I was glad to be free of…
      It's like an ache, a pain that never ceases."

      -- "What white students and faculty might
      have seen merely as an insolent charade
      was in reality an agonizing and split existence,"
      Jillian Sim wrote of her great-grandmother's Vassar experience.
      -- "All through her college years, Anita shuttled back and forth
      between elite white Vassar and migrant "black" Boston,
      between rich white strangers and her poor "black" family."

      Curiously, a Boston newspaper that interviewed Hemmings
      when she was working at the public library argued that the
      "singularly serious, frank, earnest girl" never made any
      attempt to deny her African background while in her hometown.

      -- "Miss Hemmings certainly did not go to Vassar under an assumed
      name, nor did she give a fictitious residence," said the 1897 report.
      -- "Miss Hemmings has been too prominently and publicly identified with her
      parents' people to allow any good excuse for the ignorance of her lineage
      which is attributed to her instructors and associates at Vassar."

      Andrew and Anita Hemmings Love, on the other hand,
      raised their children — Ellen, Barbara, and Andrew Jr.
      — as whites, sending them to the demanding 
      Horace Mann School in Manhattan and to an
      exclusive whites-only camp in Cape Cod. 

      According to Sim, Hemmings' mother came to
      visit the Love house just once during her daughter's
      married life and was made to use the servants' entrance.

      Ellen Love, Sim's grandmother and Anita's daughter,
      discovered 'the truth' about her racial heritage only by tracking
      down her own grandmother, Dora, on Martha's Vineyard in 1923.

      Ellen took "the secret" to her grave, telling not even her own family.

      -- "My great-grandmother was the first [[person of any
      known] black [lineage] graduate of Vassar College.

      And there was "the 'real' secret"," wrote Sim.

      -- "This was why my grandmother would
      not, could not, speak of her family.
      Grandma's mother had been born [with a lineage
      that included] black [ancestry], and she had left
      her [of-color] family behind to "become white".

      An irreversible decision.

      A decision that would affect all the
      future generations of her family.

      I thought of my faceless black ancestors who
      watched their daughter Anita leave them behind for
      better opportunities, for a better life as a white woman.

      She had to "pass" as white to educate herself.
      She had to abandon the very core
      of who she was to educate herself."

      Like her parents before her, Hemmings "conspired"
      with her daughter to keep her race [category]
      a secret in order to allow her to attend Vassar.

      On her application, Ellen marked her race
      as white and her ancestry as French and 
      English, just as her mother had done.

      If the college did not make the connection between Anita
      Hemmings and Ellen Love at the time of Ellen's admittance,
      --- the school certainly became aware of Ellen's
      racial [category] while she was on campus, 
      noted Vassar professor Bickerstaff.

      "The 25-year-old festering sores of Hemmings' white roommate
      erupted at a class reunion when the roommate heard rumors
      that Hemmings' daughter, Ellen, was enrolled at Vassar,"
      Bickerstaff wrote in a 1999 article for the Miscellany News.
      "She confided in the president that her particular interest in the question
      came from her "own painful experience" with a roommate who was
      "supposed to be a white girl", but who "proved" to be a "negress".'"

      Tamar Tate '95, co-chair of 'The African-American 
      Alumni Association', who did
       research on the
      Hemmings family while at Vassar, has read the
       between Hemmings' roommate
      and college President Henry Noble McCracken. 

      She related, "The president wrote her back and said ... 
      `We are aware, and we've made sure she's in a room by herself.
      We don't even know if [Ellen] is aware that she's black.'"

      Ellen Love, in fact, graduated as a white woman in 1927.

      "I think in some ways Vassar was thought of as a proper institution,
      but it was also progressive in what it was doing for women in this country,"
      Tate speculated on why the college would have protected Ellen.

      "I have to think that somehow they understood that at the turn of the
      century this country was still dealing with issues of "race", but it had
      gotten to the level that it just wasn't worth it [to deny Ellen admittance].

      There were so many institutions comparable to Vassar that were
      admitting [people were were of full or part-Black lineage] at the time."

      Indeed, by the time Vassar changed its policy to admit students-of-color,
      many of its peer schools — including Radcliffe and Smith
      Colleges — had already done so several decades earlier.

      Bickerstaff believes Hemmings and her daughter decided to take a
      chance with Vassar because of the unique reputation of the school.

      "Vassar was seen as a premiere liberal arts institution.

      It really was considered the first [women's school]
      to have the kind of intellectual curriculum that would
      have been competitive with its male counterparts," she said.
      "That made the school attractive to women like Anita
      who were very bright and very educationally inclined."

      Glee Club
      The Vassar College Glee Club.
      Anita Hemmings is the fourth from the right.

      According to Dr. June Jackson Christmas '45–4, 
      herself one of Vassar's first African-American
      the move to formally admit students [were of a lineage 
      that included any full or part-Black ancestry] was brought 
      about by a young Presbyterian minister from Harlem, NY.

      Pastor, James Robinson. 

      Invited to speak at a religious conference sponsored by the
      Y.W.C.A. and Vassar College in the late 1930s, he offered
      to find a student [with Black lineage] of Vassar caliber
      and present her to the college for acceptance.

      "In his congregation at the Church of the Master he found
      Beatrix (Betty) McCleary '44, a top-notch student at her
      high school in New York," wrote Christmas in a 1988 Vassar Quarterly article.
      "She applied, was accepted, and in the fall of 1940 entered Vassar as the
      first [student of openly-acknowledged "negro" lineage] in Vassar's history."

      When Christmas heard of Vassar's change in policy as she was 
      preparing to apply to college later that same year, she was skeptical 
      — although she was aware that the college had already admitted 
      at least one [student who was a Mixed-Race member of the 
       Ethnic grouping], albeit unknowingly.

      "I had grown up in the Boston area hearing a story,
      which I had always believed was apocryphal, that
      there had once been a "colored" girl at Vassar and,
      having earned the honor of being valedictorian,
      was revealed to be a [person who was of
      some part Black lineage] and denied both
      that honor and the chance to graduate,"
      Christmas wrote in the VQ article.
      "Anita Hemmings was probably the heroine of this story,
      minus the valedictory but with a happier ending."

      In 1997, Bickerstaff's students petitioned college
      President Frances D. Fergusson to recognize
      Hemmings at that year's centennial celebration.

      "There really had not been any mention of the Hemmings affair
      prior to June Jackson Christmas' article," Bickerstaff recalled.

      "I thought it was an important gesture on President Fergusson's part
      to officially integrate it into Vassar's history at the centennial celebration.

      It brought [Hemmings'] graduation and presence to a level
      of honor that it should have had a hundred years ago."

      This posting was derived from an article written by 'Olivia Mancini , Vassar Graduate, 2000'
      After graduating from Vassar in 2000, Olivia Mancini `00 was a reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal. 
      She now works as a staff writer for the Advisory Board Company in Washington, DC.

      SOURCE: http://vq.vassar.edu/issue/winter_2001/article/anita_hemmings

      Photo: Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries