February/March 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 1
One woman’s journey into her family’s past uncovers a story that affects every American
I peered down a narrow alley separating big houses that overlook Pleasant Bay in South Orleans, Cape Cod, part of a row of brand-new summer homes so close-built that they prevented me from seeing the dunes and the water beyond. Then I turned around and gazed at the meager little apron of a field this subdivision of grand houses shared. I spotted a gnarled apple tree and wondered if my grandmother had climbed it as a child…
My grandmother Ellen had gone to camp here for many summers back in the teens and twenties. Camp Quanset, it was called. In the days after the Great War, she had sailed the waters of Pleasant Bay, slept in a comfortable bunkhouse, sat by the broad main field, and laughed and quarreled with her friends. She had performed in the Camp Quanset Indian Pageant in 1922 not far from where I was standing, and I imagined all the young girls dressed in Indian garb, eager and self-conscious in the Quanset interpretation of Native American people.
I gave the place a last look and headed back to my little blue house on the mid-Cape. As soon as I got home, I reached for my grandmother’s old Camp Quanset brochure.
My grandmother had told me about the camp many times. It was a fine camp, a place where—for the stiff tariff of $350—well-heeled young ladies from as far south as Virginia and as far north as Canada learned to sail, and swim, and ride horses—their own horses, which they boarded for the two summer months. The brochure boasts that “parents, each year in increasing numbers, valued wise leadership and loving care, with the right companions and environment for their daughters.” My grandmother often spoke of the cotton gloves the girls wore on hot day outings to Provincetown and of the white kid leather shoes that pinched swollen summer feet. She described her billowy camp bloomers, a precursor to shorts. They were uncomfortable; one had to wear half-stockings with them and forever worried about getting the dress whites dirty.
My grandmother Ellen died on a muggy day in June of 1994. She died in New York City, at the age of eighty-nine. Grandma had arrived in New York with her parents at the age of two, and she was a New Yorker for the rest of her life.
Born of strict Bostonians, she grew up just outside the Columbia College campus on the Upper West Side and attended the rigorous Horace Mann School. Grandma graduated from Vassar College in 1927, immediately entered a dramatics school in Paterson, New Jersey, and went on to work steadily for more than thirty years on Broadway. She opened in Oklahoma! She had a stage presence powerful enough to allow her to hold her own with the active locomotives in the highly popular Railroads on Parade show at the 1939 World’s Fair. She even tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara (and was told she didn’t get the part because her waist was too large).
During the last seventeen years of her life, my grandmother Ellen lived modestly—as so many stage veterans must—in a midtown hotel close to the theater district she had worked in and loved.
She and I would sit for several hours every couple of weeks in her room and talk about subjects ranging from theater, music, and books to clothing styles, languages, and favorite desserts (hers was called a gremlin, a mint and chocolate confection that no longer exists).
Though she suffered from ongoing health problems, Grandma retained her steeltrap memory, sharp wit, and innate elegance. She could recite every line from every play she had ever performed; I once sat in silent admiration while standing before me in her tiny room, she performed a song she’d sung in a 1933 production, complete with all the original stage directions.
I would often ask her about her family. Who were they? Where did they come from originally—before Boston?
“Virginia” was always the curt reply.
My grandmother told me her mother was born Anita Hemmings. She had attended Vassar College a generation before her daughter did, and was a strong student there. Anita married a Dr. Andrew Love, whom she met while working at the Boston Public Library not long after she had graduated. She could speak seven languages and did not know how to cook when she married. She came from French and English stock.
My grandmother recited this information to me again and again, as if by rote. I thought, over the years, “What an upright—what a dull —family. How could it produce someone as lively and interesting as grandma?” Perhaps she’d inherited her vitality from her father. I asked about Dr. Love. The information about him and his origins was just as carefully worded and yielded even less than was revealed about Anita Hemmings. She said only that Dr. Love was Southern born, had graduated from Harvard Medical School and later gone on to Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and that he was proud, dignified, strict. Another dull bird.
Here is a story my grandmother told me about her father, Dr. Love. My grandmother detested eggs. Her father, being a medical doctor in the earlier part of the century, believed strongly that eating eggs daily was key to a good constitution. Dr. Love forced eggs on his family every single morning. One morning my grandmother rebelled against the egg despotism and left her breakfast untouched. She went to school on an empty stomach.
Several hours later, sitting in her classroom, Ellen noticed her mother at the door. She held a plate with a napkin draped over it. Anita had tears in her eyes as she explained to her daughter’s teacher that Ellen would have to eat her eggs. It was a decree from her father. Mortified and weeping, Ellen ate the eggs outside her classroom.
Dr. Love had sent his nice wife to do his bidding. This tale did not endear my great-grandfather to me.
Yet another story about Dr. Love involved his strenuous objections to his daughter’s becoming an actress. He likened the profession to that of prostitution. He was appalled my grandmother would choose acting after a Vassar education and after such a careful upbringing: eggs and Camp Quanset.
After much protest and outrage Dr. Love did go to one production my grandmother performed in—unfortunately a play titled Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath . Dr. Love never saw his daughter on the stage again.
That was as intimate as the revelations ever got. When my grandmother died—a fall in her bathroom killed her- she took her family secrets with her. Although I considered myself quite close to her, I never thought I knew who she was. And now it seemed that many questions would remain unanswered.
Not long after my grandmother’s death, a very good friend of hers phoned me at the Brooklyn apartment where I was living. I will call her Alice. She lived a few blocks away from my grandmother and visited her often. Alice made weekly grocery runs for Ellen and picked up and dropped off library books for her. She also conducted genealogical searches in her spare time and offered to perform one for my grandmother.
After we said hello to each other, Alice blurted, “I feel so awful about your grandmother. I just feel awful.”
At a loss for words I mumbled, “There was nothing anyone could have done. She lived alone. It was an accident.”
“But I feel responsible. I’d done some genealogical research on Ellen’s family, and the results did not sit well with her at all.”
“What were the results?”
“I promised I wouldn’t tell her family.”
Alice kept insisting she was in some way to blame for my grandmother’s death. I kept reassuring her that she wasn’t—and pressed her for information about what she had discovered. At the end of the conversation, Alice grew quiet and then she said thoughtfully, “Now if I tell your mother what I found, I haven’t broken my promise to your grandmother. I’ll tell your mother and then she can decide whether or not she should tell you.”
I should mention that Ellen was my father’s mother. I saw my father infrequently after my parents separated when I was two, but my mother had remained very close to her ex-mother-in-law. Alice knew what good friends they were.
Two weeks later my mother called me, excited. “I found out what the secret was—what your grandmother’s secret was.”
“Grandma’s grandfather was a black man.”
I was surprised by how little surprise I felt.
My husband tells me I voiced such a suspicion years ago. After a visit to my grandmother, and frustrated by her evasions when she was quizzed about family, I wondered aloud if there might be black blood. My husband laughed at me: “Your family is the whitest family I’ve ever met!” I don’t remember this conversation.
I have reddish brown hair, and it is very fine. I have blue eyes, and you can easily see the blue veins under my yellow-pale skin. I was ignorant enough to think of blackness in the arbitrary way most of white society does: One must have a darker hue to one’s skin to be black. I look about as black as Heidi.
If my grandmother’s grandfather was black, then he was surely the only one in the family. Was this why my grandmother, during our hundreds of talks over the years, invariably changed the subject whenever I asked about family? Because of this one man? My beloved, educated, and Christian grandmother was a racist.
A few months after I learned of the black great-great-grandfather in the family line, I moved to New Mexico with my husband and son, to get the East out of my blood. I wanted to be a pioneer in my family—a family (part of it, at least) dating back from the Mayflower and which had spent several generations, after arriving in Massachusetts, in upstate New York. I would write a novel and take pictures.
I returned east eighteen months after I left. I’d taken some pictures; I never wrote the ending to my novel. I’d realized that what I wanted was to start a serious search for my family.
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:
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My husband wonders aloud as we study the landscape how Anita was able to send her daughters here. She packed them off on a long journey bound for this snooty Cape Cod camp every summer, an arduous trip requiring, by my grandmother’s account, both trains and boats. An all-day journey to send two black children to a white camp that was not far from Boston, from Anita’s origins. A short distance from Anita’s old black neighborhood. A shorter distance from Martha’s Vineyard, where Anita’s mother, Dora, was still alive and working at her boardinghouse while Ellen and her sister were in the bracing waters of Pleasant Bay, pale arms and legs dutifully working to keep their bodies afloat. Anita must have sent her girls there so that she could visit her mother. Summer must have been the only time Anita ever saw her family.
The wind blows over the new houses, over the sad little field that was once part of a summer camp for well-to-do white girls. I imagine that same wind, softer with summer, blowing across Ellen and lifting the laundry on the line behind her grandmother’s boardinghouse, the wind that is the single most tangible bond between a family separated by the color of their skin.