Fading To White

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We moved to Cape Cod, near Boston and research sites. At my desk in New Mexico, I found on the Internet a winter rental in a small settlement called Bass River. My husband and I arrived with our son and cats the day after Christmas 1996.

I decided to begin my search by writing Vassar. In fact this would have to be my starting point: I knew little else about my grandmother and her mother other than that they both had gone to school there. I accessed the Internet on the evening of March 3, 1997, and looked for Vassar’s home page. Once I’d found it, I checked for alumnae associations and got an address for the editor of the Vassar Quarterly , Georgette Weir. Ms. Weir might know how I could track down records for a Vassar graduate. I tapped out a few lines of e-mail inquiry and was surprised by the quickness of the reply. I received the following note the next day:

My great-grandmother had been born black, and she left her black family behind to become white.
 

“Dear Ms. Sim:

“I have been able to find some information from the alumnae records that I hope will be helpful to you in your research. According to biographical register forms she filled out for the alumnae association, your great-grandmother’s full name was Anita Florence Hemmings and she was born in Boston to Dora Logan and Robt. Williamson Hemmings. She listed their nationalities as American and she identified English and French as other nationalities in her ancestry.

“Prior to her marriage, Anita worked for the Boston Public Library as a cataloguer in their foreign, incunabula, and the Brown music collections. She listed her religious affiliation as Protestant Episcopal. She prepared for college at Girls High School in Boston and Northfield Seminary. Vassar does claim Anita Hemmings as the first African-American graduate of the college, although apparently for most of her college career, she ‘passed’ as white.”

My great-grandmother was the first black graduate of Vassar College.

And there was the real secret. 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. My great-grandmother was the first black graduate of Vassar, and if the family had had its way, I never would have known about it.

But now I had names for those faceless ancestors. Anita’s father was Robert Williamson Hemmings, and her mother was Dora Logan. So Robert was the black man Alice had found. The anonymous black grandfather of my grandmother.

I knew his name.

Two days later Ms. Weir contacted me again. She told me she had a colleague at Vassar, an associate professor of education and Africana studies, who was very eager to speak with me. Would I give Ms. Weir my phone number? I did.

A couple of days after that I received a call from D’r. Joyce Bickerstaff. “This is just amazing!” she said. “At long last, one of Anita’s descendants!”

Dr. Bickerstaff went on to tell me she had become fascinated by the story of Anita Hemmings and had been researching my great-grandmother’s life for eight years. Her interest began in 1989, when she was putting together an exhibit for Vassar about the black experience at the school. She wondered who the first African-American to attend Vassar was and, after some digging, came up with my great-grandmother’s file. The photo of the beautiful young lady, who graduated in 1897, was intriguing. What was even more interesting was that this young lady had spent almost her entire stint at Vassar passing as a white woman. Anita’s true identity was discovered only days before commencement.

By all accounts Anita was an impressive student who had mastered 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 also known around the college for her “exotic” beauty. Many of her classmates tried to guess at Anita’s origins; some thought she might be of Native American descent.

According to the New York World , “Yale and Harvard men [were] among those who sought favor with the ‘brunette beauty.’”

Joyce asked me if I had any photographs of Anita. I admitted I’d never seen a picture of my great-grandmother when she was young.

“Oh, she’s absolutely beautiful!”

This fact may have fomented some jealousy in Anita’s roommate, who had begun to have suspicions regarding Anita’s racial identity. Joyce told me that shortly before Anita was set to graduate, the roommate persuaded her own father to investigate the Hemmingses. He traveled to Boston to look up Anita’s family.

He found what he was looking for.