The Quest Continues

August 2017

Since last April I have continued seeking traces of my family. Here are some highlights of my journey:

Meeting a ninety-four-year-old black resident of Martha’s Vineyard who as a child knew Dora Hemmings (she called her Gramma Hemmings) and also owns Dora’s old house in Oak Bluffs. This woman told me that Dora Hemmings visited her daughter Anita just once during Anita’s years in New York City—and was made to use the servants’ entrance.

From a rare conversation with an often absent family member, I learned that Ellen had suspicions the grandmother she had never met was living on Martha’s Vineyard, and in 1923 she went looking for her. Ellen found her grandmother Dora—and she learned that day the family was black.

Thirty years after the Vassar scandal, Anita’s former roommate, still smarting over the wound of rooming with a black woman, wrote to the college president when Ellen was there, inquiring about Vassar’s policy on admitting blacks. The old roommate had heard Anita Hemmings was now sending a daughter to Vassar and was concerned that any roommate of Ellen might suffer the same pain she had when she learned she had been living with a black woman disguising herself as white.

While I was reading material concerning Boston blacks in the nineteenth century, I discovered that Anita Hemmings was friends with W. E. B. Du Bois.

Anita’s sister Elizabeth Hemmings was married to the first black state assemblyman of New Jersey, Dr. Walter G. Alexander. He was also president, during the 1920s, of the National Medical Association (black doctors were refused membership in the AMA and had to form their own association, the NMA). Dr. Andrew Love was a member of the AMA, and through its Deceased Physician File I learned the AMA accepted Dr. Love even though he was listed as being colored and having attended Meharry Medical School. (Interestingly, there is an instruction given by Dr. Love on this file: He asked the association to “drop Meharry” from his records.)

I recently met, thanks to a friend, an African-American great-niece of Dr. Love. She is researching our Love family. My cousin tells me Dr. Love had fifteen brothers and sisters. Some passed as white; most did not.

Years ago my grandmother told me, “There’s a rumor in the family that we’re all descended from Thomas Jefferson.” I have been actively pursuing leads linking my family to that of the Hemings slave family of Monticello. In the course of research I have been asked if we are descended from Sally Hemings, the mother of Jefferson’s slave children. I don’t think we hail from Sally, but I do believe my ancestors once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

—J.A.S.