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
peoplewho were of the largely Mixed-Race Ethnic
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
was a means to gain opportunities in
said Bickerstaff, who is now working on a book
the Hemmings family, tentatively titled Dark
-- "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
-- "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."
secrecy of utmost importance, there are no numbers
to indicate how many [people who were member of the
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
lineage] published two novels for which she would become
known as a respected author of the Harlem Renaissance.
Quicksand (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
correspondence 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."
The Vassar College Glee Club.
Anita Hemmings is the fourth from the right.
to Dr. June Jackson Christmas '454,
herself one of Vassar's first African-American graduates,
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
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
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
African-American Ethnic grouping], albeit
"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.
Photo: Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries