Anita Florence Hemmings: Passing For White At Vassar
Anita Florence Hemmings graduated from Vassar in 1897. But though she was an excellent student, she came very close to not getting her degree at all. That was because just days before graduation, Anita’s roommate uncovered her deepest secret.
In a school that would never have considered admitting a black student, Anita Hemmings had for four years covered up the fact that she was of African American ancestry.
In other words, Anita Hemmings was a black woman who was passing for white, and it almost got her kicked out of Vassar on the very eve of her graduation.
Anita’s family: up from slavery
Anita Hemmings was born on June 8, 1872. Her parents were Robert Williamson Hemmings and Dora Logan Hemmings, both of whom had been born in Virginia, apparently to slave parents. Robert worked as a janitor, while Dora was listed in census records as a homemaker.
Robert and Dora both identified themselves as “mulattoes,” people of mixed black and white heritage.
The Hemmings family lived at 9 Sussex Street in Boston, which is in the historically black Roxbury section of the city. Though they might be living in humble circumstances, Robert and Dora were very ambitious for their four children. Not only would they send Anita to Vassar, but her brother would graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Frederick Hemmings made no effort to hide his race at MIT, where his student records identify him as “colored.”
But the option of openly identifying herself as black was not open to Anita; not if she wanted to fulfill her lifelong dream of going to Vassar.
The Hemmings family decides to have Anita pose as white
Established in 1861 in Poughkeepsie, NY, Vassar was one of the most prestigious colleges for women in the nation.
According to Olivia Mancini, writing in the Vassar Alumnae/i Quarterly, the school “catered almost exclusively to the daughters of the nation’s elite.” One newspaper account of Anita’s story noted that “Vassar is noted for its exclusiveness.” When Anita was ready to apply to college in 1893, the chances that Vassar would knowingly admit a black student were effectively zero.
So, Anita and her parents decided to do what it would take to get Anita into the school. They simply failed to note on her application that she had African American ancestry. Instead, she was listed as being of French and English background.
Anita was well qualified to become a student at Vassar. Later newspaper accounts, published after her secret was revealed, say that as a child she had come to the attention of a wealthy white woman who financed her early education. Well prepared, Anita easily passed the Vassar entrance examination, and was an excellent student there.
A beautiful and accomplished young woman
In addition to her academic achievements, Anita had another qualification that was even more necessary to her career at Vassar. She looked unquestionably white; and she was unquestionably beautiful.
"She has a clear olive complexion, heavy black hair and eyebrows and coal black eyes," said a Boston newspaper in reporting the story of her graduation from Vassar. According to the New York World:
[She was] one of the most beautiful young women who ever attended the great institution of learning. Her manners were those of a person of gentle birth, and her intelligence and ability were recognized alike by her classmates and professors.
Another newspaper, with an eye for a sensational headline, trumpeted that she was:
The Handsomest Girl There-Yale and Harvard Men Among Those Who Sought Favor With the "Brunette Beauty."
While on campus Anita participated fully in both the academic and social life of the college. She was proficient in seven languages, including Latin, French, and ancient Greek, and was active in the college choir, the Debate Society, and the Contemporary Club Literary Organization. A gifted soprano, she was invited to give recitals at local churches. The New York World noted in its story that the upper class women of Poughkeepsie had “receive[d] her in their homes as their equal.”
But eventually questions began to arise about the beautiful young woman with olive skin.
Anita’s roommate grows suspicious
By her third year at the school, rumors concerning Anita’s ancestry were starting to circulate. Probably one reason for this was the visit she received at Vassar from her brother Frederick, the MIT student of whom she was very proud. Frederick’s MIT class photo shows him to be a shade darker than his classmates (he was the only African American in his class, and one of the first to graduate from MIT). Some of Anita’s fellow students began whispering that she might have some Indian blood in her veins.
But it was her own roommate who finally blew Anita’s cover. This young woman voiced her growing suspicions to her father. The father, horrified at the possibility that his blue blood daughter might be living in the same room as someone whose blood was not quite as blue as her own, hired a private detective to track down Anita’s antecedents. That wasn’t hard, since on their home turf in the Roxbury section of Boston, the Hemmings family made no effort to hide their racial identity.
Anita is threatened with expulsion before graduation
Confronted, just a few days before graduation, with the bombshell revelation that her secret had been exposed, Anita went tearfully to a sympathetic faculty member and confessed her plight. She was terrified that after four years of hard work and academic achievement, she would be denied her diploma because of her race.
The professor was moved by Anita’s story, and decided to do all she could to insure that the school would not perpetrate the injustice of refusing to allow an excellent student to graduate simply because she was black. As one newspaper account put it:
The kindhearted professor, a woman, wiped away the girl’s tears and spoke words of encouragement. Then she went to President Taylor with the story and pleaded with him not to deprive the girl of commencement honors and a diploma.
Vassar’s president, James Monroe Taylor, immediately called a secret meeting of the faculty to discuss this unprecedented situation. Here’s the New York World’s account of that meeting:
The faculty considered the matter gravely. Never had a colored girl been a student at aristocratic Vassar, and the professors were at a loss to foresee the effect upon the future if this one were allowed to be graduated. Yet there is nothing in the college rules that prohibits a colored woman from entering Vassar.
Commencement was but a few days off and the girl would soon be gone and forgotten. So it was decided to conceal the facts and to allow her to be graduated with her classmates. On class day and commencement the young woman took a prominent part in the exercises, and of all the hundred or more girls in the class of '97 none looked more attractive or acted more becomingly than this girl of negro birth.
Interestingly, once she was allowed to graduate with her class, Anita was mentioned in college alumni publications just like any of her classmates. No mention was made of her race.
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— Robert Williamson Hemmings
Was it right for Anita Hemmings to pretend to be white in order to get into Vassar?
Anita’s life after graduating from Vassar
Safely graduated from what was perhaps the most prestigious women’s college in the nation, Anita went on to join the staff of the Boston Public Library as their foreign cataloguer, doing translations and bibliographies.
By 1914 she was listed in Woman's Who's who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada. That listing noted that she “favors woman suffrage.” She also became a friend of African American civil rights activist W. E. B. Dubois.
When she returned to her hometown of Boston after college, Anita never made any attempt to hide her African American ancestry. But her days of passing for white were not over, not by a long shot.
A new chapter in a life of passing as white
In 1903 Anita married Dr. Andrew Jackson Love, whom she met through her work at the library. Dr. Love would go on to have a prestigious medical practice among the rich on Madison Avenue in New York City.
Anita and her husband, each well educated and comfortable among people at the highest levels of society, had a lot in common. In fact, they had more in common than Dr. Love’s patients, and Anita’s new friends, would ever know.
Although Dr. Love claimed to have graduated from Harvard Medical School, the institution listed on his diploma was actually Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. Founded in 1876, Meharry was the first medical school in the South devoted to educating black physicians. In other words, Anita’s husband was also an African American who was passing for white. The two would spend the rest of their lives living as white people.
Why did Anita and her husband choose to deny their racial heritage?
From the late 19th century through the 1950s, it was not at all unusual for upwardly mobile African Americans to attempt to pass as white if they thought they could get away with it. The reason is simple. During those times racial prejudice and discrimination were pervasive and debilitating facts of life for black people in America. If you were known to have any black blood in your veins, almost every avenue of advancement would be closed to you. Many (though not all) African Americans whose appearance allowed them to do so made the excruciatingly painful decision to pass as white because there was no other way to escape the heavy burden of racial discrimination.
There was a heavy price to pay for passing as white
If you were going to pass for white, you had to essentially cut yourself off from your family and community of origin. As Anita found out the hard way at Vassar, something as simple as having a darker skinned relative come to visit could tear down everything you had built up in a lifetime of living as a white person.
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.— Dr. F. James Davis
In fact, Anita soon faced exactly that dilemma with her own mother. According to Anita’s great granddaughter, Jillian Sim, Dora Logan Hemmings came to visit the Loves in their New York home only once. And when she did, she had to use the servants’ entrance.
The Loves raised their children as whites. It was not until she met her grandmother Dora for the first time in 1923 that Anita’s daughter Ellen, born in 1905, learned that her family was black.
A second generation passes for white at Vasser
When Ellen was ready for college in the early 1920s, Anita, like many parents, wanted her daughter to attend her alma mater. But Vassar would not knowingly admit an African American until Beatrix McCleary and June Jackson were enrolled in 1940. Ellen went to Vassar anyway, and she did it, like her mother, passing as white.
VIDEO: Interview with Dr. Beatrix McCleary Hamburg, who became the first acknowledged African American Vassar graduate in 1944.
The roommate strikes again!
Unbelievably, after 25 years Anita’s former roommate had not gotten over the trauma of having roomed with an African American. At a class reunion she learned that Anita’s daughter was now enrolled in Vassar, and was, like her mother before her, passing for white.
The roommate, still stung by her "own painful experience with a roommate who was supposed to be a white girl, but who proved to be a negress," sent a letter of complaint to the college’s president, Henry Noble McCracken. Dr. McCracken’s response indicates that the school had at least progressed beyond outright panic at the prospect of having an African American student. “We are aware,” he replied, “and we’ve made sure she’s in a room by herself. We don’t even know if she is aware that she’s black."
Ellen would become Vassar’s second black graduate in 1927. There would not be another until 1944.
A secret kept through generations
Jill Sim, Anita’s great granddaughter, didn’t discover her black ancestry until after her grandmother Ellen passed away in 1994. Although the two were very close, Ellen would never talk about that aspect of the family history. When Jill, having lived all her life as a white person, discovered that she had African American ancestors, she had an interesting take on her racial identity.
I have reddish brown hair, and it is very fine. I have blue eyes, and you can easily see the blue veins under my yellow-pale 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.
And yet, by the rules of racial identity that, to this day, we adhere to in this country, Jill Sim is black.
The “One Drop” rule
In the age of Barack Obama, universally spoken of as the first black President of the United States, although he is actually half white, it might be fairly asked why someone like Jill Sim, who obviously has more European ancestry than African, should still be considered black.
It’s because the “one drop” rule is still in effect in this country. F. James Davis, Professor Emeritus of sociology at Illinois State University addresses the issue in his book Who is Black? One Nation's Definition.
According to Professor Davis, the “one drop” rule is the product of slavery in the American South, and the Jim Crow system of segregation that followed it. The rule says that a person with any known black ancestry, down to a "single drop" of African blood, is automatically defined as black. That definition is still generally accepted by whites and blacks alike. Even our court system often abides by it.
Not only does the one-drop rule apply to no other group than American blacks, but apparently the rule is unique in that it is found only in the United States and not in any other nation in the world.— Dr. F. James Davis
That’s why Anita Hemmings, and her children, and her children’s children, could be visually indistinguishable from whites, yet be considered black down to the farthest generation.
And that’s why Anita, her husband, and many thousands of others like them, were willing to pay the price of being entirely alienated from their heritage in order to gain for themselves and their children the privileges other Americans take for granted.
© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin