Fading To White

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I also learned at this time of a letter my grandmother sent to Vassar when I was seven years old. It was her fervent wish, she said, that her granddaughter Julian attend Vassar to “avail” herself of the “magic” one could experience there. My grandmother never said a word to me about this wish. My own college career had been less than exemplary. I did not risk anything for an education, as Anita had done. In fact I hadn’t finished my education at all; I pretty much hid from the world during my three years of college and never pursued scholastic excellence as I ought to have. When my grandmother died, I still had not completed my education, that symbol of advancement so dear to her, and so dear to her mother.

In June 1997 my husband gave me an early birthday gift of three hours of research from a genealogist. I wrote to the New England Historical Genealogical Society and requested the hours from them. The genealogist assigned to my case, a man named Neil Todd, quickly dispatched to me census figures and death records from the Massachusetts Department of Health.

From these I learned that Anita and Frederick had two other siblings: Elizabeth and Robert Junior. Elizabeth died in an asylum; she was clinically insane. The death records also told me that Robert, Anita’s father, died in 1908 at the age of fifty-five. The cause of his death was given as “exhaustion.” According to the 1880 and the 1900 census, Robert Senior worked as a “coachman” and a “janitor.” His wife, Dora, during these years was “at home.”

The census records also reported that both Dora and Robert Hemmings had been born in Virginia, Dora in Bridgewater, Robert in Harrisonburg. I took out a map and saw that the two towns are not so far apart.

On Robert’s death certificate his father was listed as “unknown.” The name given for his mother was simply “Sarah.” There were no parents’ names at all listed for Dora.

I did some quick mental arithmetic and realized Anita’s father died not too long after Anita’s first child had died of diphtheria, in 1907, at the age of three. I knew from my grandmother that Anita had contracted measles during her second pregnancy. She remained sick and went into premature labor, giving birth to my great-aunt while five months along. The attending physician said to put the baby on a sofa to let it die; no infant could survive at five months, and it was more important to try to save the mother. But the newborn girl’s cries were so loud and so strong that Dr. Love realized it was possible the baby (“no bigger than a grapefruit”) could live. He turned to his wife and issued his decree: “Mrs. Love, tend that baby!” Sick, exhausted, and grief-stricken, Anita did.

 

On July 10 I received a copy of the marriage record for my great-grandparents Anita Hemmings and Dr. Andrew Love. I looked at it with growing amazement. Anita is listed as “Col.” And so is Dr. Love.

I immediately wrote Harvard, explaining that Andrew Love had attended Harvard Medical School and asking for any copies of his records. An archivist wrote back promptly, saying there was no evidence that Dr. Love had ever been to Harvard.

I thought about Dr. Love for a time, trying to remember where he had come from. One member of my family had said North Carolina; another, Tennessee. The marriage document said, “Canton.” I checked North Carolina and Tennessee; there were Cantons in both states. I researched medical schools in the two states on the Internet and came up with a good candidate for Dr. Love’s education: Meharry Medical College, a historically all-black school in Tennessee.

I contacted Meharry. The reply came two months later, in December. Andrew Jackson Love graduated from Meharry in 1890. He was listed there as colored.

The man I saw as white, cold and condescending, the man who had saved Anita from the sin of her blackness, was himself black—a passing, educated black who conducted a medical practice on Madison Avenue for rich white people.

This fact of course greatly complicated my easy assumption that it was he who had made Anita turn her back on her black family. I also had to discard my image of him as the licentious white savior of my black great-grandmother. A very white view, I’m afraid. Now I had to envision both Anita and Andrew as equals, partners in a lifelong deception that was courageous, desperate —and so effective that I might very well have gone to my grave without ever learning of it.

April 1998

It is April on Cape Cod. A reluctant month, its windy might resisting the coming summer. I’ve returned to what was Camp Quanset, which has now become, for me, an emblem of the family’s fading to white. It was here, eighty summers ago, that my grandmother squeezed her feet into those white kid leather boots, cursing her bloomers, while watching her friends cantering across sunny fields on their horses.