Posted on September 30 2015 by Laura Streett, Vassar College Archivist

Vassar’s First Black Students: A History

The story of race at Vassar is long and complex, and a blog is hardly the forum to try to address even half of it, but one question that comes up time and again here in Archives and Special Collections is, “Who was the first Black graduate of Vassar College?

The quick answer is Anita Hemmings, VC 1897, and her story has been told in the Vassar Quarterly and elsewhere. Often mentioned in articles about Hemmings is her daughter, Ellen Love, who was a member of the Vassar College class of 1927, but there is less discussion of Beatrix McCleary, VC 1944, Camille Cottrell, and June Jackson, both VC 1945-4, and one could make the argument that it was those three women who were truly the first African Americans admitted to Vassar.

Anita Hemmings did indeed graduate from Vassar, and she was definitely of African American descent, but no one at Vassar knew that she was “passing” as white until a few weeks before graduation, when her roommate’s suspicions about Hemmings’ family in Boston revealed the truth about her heritage. Hemmings was allowed to graduate, but the faculty and trustees had to take the matter under serious consideration. Hemmings’ daughter, Ellen Love, was raised in New York, where Hemmings continued to pass as white, as did her husband Dr. Andrew Love. While it seems unlikely that someone in the Vassar administration didn’t make the connection between Hemmings and her daughter, Love was admitted and graduated without incident. But whether or not anyone at the college actually knew, it’s possible that Love herself didn’t know she had African American blood. Her parents raised their children to believe that they were white and seem to have broken ties with the “Blacker” sides of their families.

So can we really say that Vassar was integrated with the arrival of Hemmings in 1894? No. Hemmings’ story is important, her bravery should be admired, and more research needs to be done about her experiences here. Indeed, the whole topic of passing is a painful and significant chapter in African American history, and how Hemmings fits into that story is well worth studying. However, Hemmings’ time at Vassar is not a tale of a college’s valiant stand for integration. As far as the world knew, Vassar did not accept African American students until 46 years later.

Beatrix McCleary Hamburg’s class has celebrated its 70th reunion. Camille Cottrell Espeut and June Jackson Christmas will hit theirs in 2015. All three have spoken fondly of their alma mater, but there’s no avoiding the truth that race was still an issue. When asked if she experienced discrimination at Vassar, Beatrix McCleary Hamburg said, “On the contrary, I felt that I was being killed with kindness.” But she also wrote that she was “bombarded” with questions about the Black world and felt that she “represented the Negro Problem–in capitals.” Both she and June Jackson Christmas felt that they were sometimes seen not so much as fellow students, but rather as the answer to a larger social problem which good liberal arts students should be concerned about. But there were more painful incidents as well, such as Christmas being told by a professor that a paper she’d struggled with must have been plagiarized because “it didn’t sound like a Negro’s writing.” And then there were the things they might have suspected but never heard. In 1994, Phyllis Larsen reminisced at her 50th reunion about a night in 1942 when another white student became extremely uncomfortable after realizing too late that she had accepted a seat at the same dining hall table as June Jackson. Larsen wondered if June had realized what had happened. If she did, she certainly didn’t let on then, but she wrote later that sometimes the “personal pain at racist incidents was so deep that I could not share it with my new-found White friends…”

There’s so much more to research and ponder about the Black experience at Vassar. I’ve listed the sources I used for this brief post below, but if you have the interest and the opportunity, you are more than welcome to contact Archives and Special Collections to come in and learn more.

Sources:

  • McCleary, Beatrix. “Negro Student at Vassar.” Vassar Quarterly, June 1946, p 15.
  • Christmas, June Jackson. “A Historical Overview: The Black Experience At Vassar.” Vassar Quarterly, Spring 1988, p 3.
  • Mancini, Olivia. “Passing as White: Anita Hemmings.” Vassar Quarterly, Winter 2001.
  • Perkins, Linda M. “The African American Female Elite: The Early History of African American Women in the Seven Sister Colleges, 1880-1960.” Harvard Educational Review (Winter 1997): 718-756.
  • Video interview by Eric Hamburg with his mother, Beatrix McCleary Hamburg, ca. 2012. Available on Vimeo.  
  • Reunion booklets for the Classes of 1944 and 1945-4, Archives and Special Collections. Vassar College Digital Library

For a similar project at our partner institution, Bryn Mawr College, visit the Black at Bryn Mawr blog. This post originally was published in February 2014 by Laura Streett on the Vassar College Libraries blog.

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