Passing as White: Anita Hemmings 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 black graduate — more than 40 years before the college opened its doors to African Americans.
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 janitor 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 African Americans 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 whites. Like his wife, Love had been passing for years. A graduate of the historically blacks-only 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 the black community 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 black. I look about as black as Heidi."
With secrecy of utmost importance, there are no numbers to indicate how many African Americans crossed over to the white world to search for better chances, but the practice is well documented.
In the late 1920s, Nella Larsen 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 black.
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 all 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 black 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 black, and she had left her black 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 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 identity 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 black people 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.
According to Dr. June Jackson Christmas ’45–4, herself one of Vassar’s first African-American graduates, the move to formally admit black students was brought about by a young Presbyterian minister from Harlem, Rev. 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 black student 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 openly acknowledged Negro student 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 African-American student, 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 Negro 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."
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.