- Historic Sites
Fading To White
One woman’s journey into her family’s past uncovers a story that affects every American
February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
The very helpful archivist was kind enough also to send me a copy of Frederick’s grades and the title of his thesis: “The Changes That Glucose Undergoes During Fermentation, and the Speed of Hydrolysis of Different Starches.” I saw that Frederick John Hemmings had done rather poorly at school. No matter; he was one of MIT’s first black graduates. He was listed as “Colored” in the school records. I read that he went on to work all his life at the Boston Navy Yard as a chemist.
Frederick, unlike his sister, never passed for white. Gazing on the copy of his school photograph, I saw a man whose physical features were much like my older brother’s, but decidedly darker. I was looking at the first image of my black family.
I stared for a long time at Frederick’s MIT picture. Above a neat little bow tie and starched collar, his skin was smooth, his hair thick and wavy. He had a dreamy-eyed look about him that I recognized in several of my family members. Frederick appeared introspective and hesitant. In the photocopy of his class picture, he is the only black amid seventy or so whites. He stands in the last row of his class, leaning against the side of an imposing MIT building. He looks very much apart from his peers.
I checked 9 Sussex Street on a Boston map. Sussex Street still exists and is located in the city’s Roxbury area. So the family lived in what today, as then, is a black enclave next door to the Back Bay section, close to the very white and wealthy part of the Hub.
In May I went to Vassar. I stayed at Alumni House, a Tudor building I remembered my grandmother speaking of; it had been built while she attended Vassar, in 1924. And indeed, I learned from Joyce Bickerstaff, they used to make gremlins—my grandmother’s favorite dessert—in the Alumni House coffee shop.
Joyce Bickerstaff is a black woman. Gracious, sweet, wise, and sharp, she reminded me of Ellen. We met each other in my Alumni House hotel room. We talked, and I showed her Frederick’s MIT file and a photo my grandmother had given me of Anita and Dr. Love: a view of an aging white couple in the late 1930s enjoying a piece of cake at some kind of event, an anniversary or a reunion.
Joyce and I talked and laughed well into the night. I told her everything I could about my family, and then the discussion turned to black history—to the events that were happening around the time Anita and Frederick Hemmings were in college. I had rather prided myself on my knowledge of American history, but that night at Vassar with Joyce I realized that in fact I possessed only a fair grasp of the subject, and it was confined to white American history.
I knew next to nothing about Jim Crow laws and “separate but equal.” I cringed when I remembered writing a college paper about W. E. B. Du Bois. I believed Du Bois was a well-meaning white man who had encouraged the black race in the early part of this century. (I’d seen a picture of him in a textbook, and he looked white to me.) My professor had been flabbergasted when he read my essay.
In Joyce I found a friend and a patient teacher. I felt I found more family too, not only because she reminded me of Ellen but because we shared an intense admiration for Anita Hemmings.
I went to Vassar Special Collections the next day, and Joyce showed me a picture of a young Anita Hemmings for the first time. In May the Vassar campus was glorious, the fragrance of the Hudson Valley spring all around. It was a day for falling in love. And I fell in love with my great-grandmother’s picture. Seeing the young Anita was like finding another missing link, the spine of the skeleton.
Nancy MacKechnie, the archivist at Vassar Special Collections, showed me a second image of Anita she had managed to find in the depths of the holdings, a picture that had been included in one student’s scrapbook of the kind young ladies used to make: photographs of friends, lines of poetry, decoupage, and playbills. This second image of Anita was even lovelier than the first. It was her graduation photograph and showed a woman more filled out than the previous image: more mature, more graceful, if that was possible, and perhaps lacking the dreamy gaze of the earlier image.
Listed as “colored” in MIT records, Anita’s brother was one of the school’s first black graduates.
I took a walk around the campus before I left. One hundred years before, exactly, my great-grandmother Anita Hemmings was exposed before the school. Yet she stayed the course. And she did another brave thing. She sent her daughter, my grandmother Ellen, to Vassar. My grandmother successfully passed as white at Vassar, graduating exactly thirty years after her mother.
During the weeks after the Vassar trip, I sent letters of inquiry to various libraries and genealogical organizations. Soon after, in the course of subsequent phone conversations with Joyce after the Vassar visit, I learned that Anita’s mother, Dora Logan Hemmings, had run a boardinghouse on Martha’s Vineyard every summer for more than forty years.