A Woman to Know: Anita Hemmings

We know our daughter went to Vassar as a white girl and stayed there as such. — Robert Williamson Hemmings

(image via Wikimedia Commons)


In 1893, Anita Hemmings applied to Vassar College. She marked "white" on her application — and hid her race at school, singing in the Vassar Glee Club and studying Latin.

A few months before graduation, her roommate went to the administration: she suspected that in Anita's four years at Vassar, the "exotic beauty" had been passing as white. The rooommate's father even hired a private investigator, to stake out the Hemmings house in Boston and secure evidence that the family was black.

Soon, Anita was making headlines around the country, as "the colored girl at Vassar." "The strength of her white blood in has so asserted itself that she could pass anywhere simply as a pronounced brunette of white race," one Boston newspaper wrote. "No one who saw the class of '97 leave the shades of Vassar suspected Negro blood in one woman voted the class beauty," reported the Providence Journal.

Anita managed to graduate in the midst of the scandal in 1897, but she moved back to Boston crushed by her roommate's betrayal and her alma mater's disgrace. She married a white doctor in 1903 and moved with him to New York. She lived as white for the rest of her life.

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** Thank you to bff Alex Laughlin for recommending Anita as a woman to know! Read (and listen!) more from Alex on @theladycast, her podcast about women doing things. **

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