"PASSING FOR WHITE"
When Anita Florence Hemmings (above) 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.
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."
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.
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).
"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.
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.
COMMENT ON THIS STORY