Fading To White

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The father of Anita’s roommate returned to Vassar College to drop a bomb: The beautiful and tawny fellow student Anita Hemmings was indeed a Negress.

The students felt betrayed and embittered by Anita’s deceit, and a school board went into special session to decide if Miss Hemmings should be allowed to graduate after perpetrating such a falsehood.

There are no school minutes that survive to tell the tale of that board meeting. But Anita did graduate, and that summer the news of a black woman at white Vassar echoed through major cities in the United States and to “all corners of the globe,” according to one paper covering the scandal.

“Society and educational circles in this city,” wrote the World , “are profoundly shocked by the announcement in the local papers to-day that one of the graduating class of Vassar College this year was a Negro girl, who concealing her race, entered the college, took the four year’s course, and finally confessed the truth to a professor a few days before commencement.

“The facts were communicated to the faculty, which body in secret session decided to allow the girl to receive her diploma with her class.…

“She has been known as one of the most Beautiful young women who ever attended the great institution of learning, and even now women who receive her in their homes as their equal do not deny her beauty.…

“Her manners were those of a person of gentle birth, and her intelligence and ability were recognized alike by her classmates and professors. Her skin was dark but not swarthy. Her hair was black but straight as an Indian’s, and she usually gathered it in a knot at the back of her head. Her eyes were coal black and of piercing brilliancy. Her appearance was such that in other environments she might have been taken for an Indian. Indeed, not a few of the students whispered that Indian blood flowed in her veins.”

When Dr. Bickerstaff finished her story, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of pride for my great-grandmother, for the courage and strength she had shown in her quest for education. How alone she must have felt at the moment, almost exactly a century earlier, when the news hit the college. I could only imagine the resources she had to draw on to weather the scandal and the subsequent affront felt by the Vassar community.

What white students and faculty might have seen merely as an insolent charade was in reality an agonizing and split existence. 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.

A natural question after learning about all this was: What was that family like? Anita must have had extraordinary parents who would have encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming “thoroughly educated” (as she put it on her application to Northfield Seminary in Massachusetts) as the sole black among many whites. Anita’s parents and siblings would have agonized along with her, been afraid for Anita, for all four years when she was passing as white.

I now had more information about my family than I had gotten in a lifetime of chatting with my grandmother. I felt embarrassed in front of Joyce. I had to admit to her that my family had wholly suppressed their black experience, their blood, because they were ashamed of it.

Then I realized perhaps the blame for this denial lay at the feet of my grandmother’s father, Dr. Love. Anita had married a true Victorian, a strict white physician. Probably it was he who had mandated that little-be said of Anita’s Vassar experience and nothing about her family’s true origins. Maybe he even married my great-grandmother out of pity—or, worse, a white man’s mixture of pity and prurient, creepy designs on a beautiful young black woman! Horrible. Yes, this portrait fitted for me. The man responsible for forcing eggs on grandmother, who was so strict and wholesome, felt he’d done the Christian thing by marrying my scandalous, lowly great-grandmother.

I went to Vassar Special Collections the next day and for the first time saw a picture of the young Anita.

“There was a brother,” Joyce Bickerstaff told me when we were finishing up another phone call. “A brother of whom Anita was very proud. I heard he went to MIT.”

I called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the next day and inquired at the registrar’s office about a Hemmings who would have attended the school in the late nineteenth century. I was put on hold. After a moment the person at the registrar’s came back on, confirmed that a Frederick John Hemmings had graduated in 1897, and offered to send me what he could about him.

A few days later the mail brought a packet containing photocopies of a group picture of MIT’s 1897 graduating class and Frederick Hemmings’s class portrait. I also received a copy of a page from the MIT 1897 Class Book, which revealed Frederick’s, and thus Anita’s, home address in Boston: 9 Sussex Street.