Vassar’s First Black Students


Beatrix McCleary, June Jackson, and Camille Cottrell: 1944 and 1944-5 Vassarions.

February is African American History Month. 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. Her story has been told in the Miscellany News, the Vassar Quarterly, and elsewhere. Often mentioned in the articles about Hemmings is her daughter, Ellen Love, who was a member of the class of 1927. There is less discussion, however, 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 Florence Hemmings

Anita Hemmings, ca. 1897

Anita Hemmings was of African American descent, and did indeed graduate from Vassar, but no one at Vassar knew she was Black until a few weeks before graduation. Hemmings had “passed” as white for four years, but in the spring of 1897, the father of a suspicious roommate undertook an investigation of Hemmings’ family in Boston, and revealed her heritage. Hemmings was allowed to graduate, but the faculty and trustees had to take the matter under consideration. There are no records of the trustee conversations on the issue, but not only did Hemmings graduate, she returned the following year for reunion. Hemmings’ daughter, Ellen Love, was also a Vassar graduate. She was raised in New York, where her mother continued to pass as white, as did her father, Dr. Andrew Love. It seems unlikely that someone in the Vassar administration didn’t make the connection between Hemmings and their daughter, but Love was admitted and graduated without incident. The college may have known Ellen Love’s family history, but 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.

Ellen Love

Ellen Love, 1927 Vassarion

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 will celebrate its 70th reunion this spring. Camille Cottrell Espeut and June Jackson Christmas will have 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 during thir time at Vassar. When asked if she experienced discrimination in college, 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 viewed not so much as fellow students, but rather as the answer to a larger social problem 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 written must have been plagiarized because “it didn’t sound like a Negro’s writing.” There were also 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 she had accepted a seat at the same dining hall table as June Jackson. Larsen wondered if June 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 learn more. In the meanwhile, take a few minutes and watch this fascinating video featuring the first Black woman accepted at Vassar, Dr. Beatrix McCleary Hamburg:

Hamburg video

Video by Eric Hamburg, available at

Sources for further research:

Ruminations on finals

Ah, exam week. Worried? Unprepared? Rundown? Procrastinating? Can’t wait to find out what your grades are? You’re not alone. Despite not having Facebook, Twitter, blogs, or other social media, Vassar students from years past had their own outlets for recording their feelings about this most stressful time of the year. Lest you think venting about exams is something new, here are some excerpts from the Vassar Digital Library’s collection of student diaries and letters.

Library students studying ca 1901-1904

Library students studying ca 1901-1904

1865: Christine Ladd diary entry

We have had private examinations this week, which have done a good deal to take down my self conceit.  They have been demonstrative proof that impressions made on my mind have no more durability than if a seal plunged into the water.  … I am so inconceivably illogical.  It is impossible for me to apprehend the relations of things.  Education of such mental imbecility is a gross mistake.

1870: Ellen Adee diary entry

The revel of examinations is done and two days worry and cramming tell their tale in exhaustion mentily and bodily.  But that chapel essay could be postponed no longer, and what Nature could not do, green tea must.  It did help this morning I am sure, but this evening every muscle and nerve in my body seem about to give out.

ph.f 3.21 Main Building Library ca 1880

Main Building Library ca 1880

1871: Bertha Keffer diary entry

I wish it were the June examination instead of February.  I wish the Faculty had to be examined before a lot of people twice a year when we are.  They would soon do away with all such botherations if they came home to themselves.

1872: Frances Bromley diary entry

Examination days tire me more than almost any others. It’s a different kind of tired.


Student at desk in dorm, n.d.

Student at desk in dorm, n.d.

1872: Letter from Julia Pease to her mother

The examinations come off this week, Thursday and Friday. I dread them a good deal for I am not nearly as good a scholar as I was last year. It sometimes seems that I have grown most miserably stupid, for It is with the greatest difficulty that I can learn my lessons at all, and when I have learned them I cannot remember them long. Then, I think my teachers are none of them very good.

1896: Letter from Adelaide Mansfield to her mother

A hard week is over and a comparatively easy week is before as. Our exams, were harder than usual, and also harder to prepare for. Our exam, in Thucydides was the worst. Miss Leach gave us for the first question a passage to translate, which was the very hardest passage in the book. Some of the girls had just reviewed It, but a good many – including myself – had not looked at it since we had it about two months ago.

1915: Helen Hartley Pease Diary

Rained all day. Horrid walking. No flunk notes. Passed all my exams. Slept two hours in P.M. Didn’t go to new presidents’ reception for the weather. Only 5 nuts went. Retired early.


Thanksgiving, 1872

Last year we shared a collection of menus from Vassar Thanksgivings past. This year we’re moving beyond the food to offer an account of how Vassar students spent the full holiday nearly 140 years ago, from dawn to dark. The piece appeared in the January 1873 issue of the Vassar Miscellany.

Main Building, late 19th century

Main Building, late 19th century

Thanksgiving Day dawned clear and bright upon us. That is to say, although we can not assert this for a fact, not having made any personal observations in the matter, it is safe to suppose that a perfect dawn must have preceded the perfect day which followed. The air blew fresh from the far-away mountain-tops, with a dash of snow and a tingle of ice in it that was particularly exhilarating. The sun did his very best beaming, the sky intensified its blue, and the clouds piled up their fleeciness. If we had not such an extreme dislike to anything which savors of originality, we might have been led to exclaim, “O, what is so rare as a day in November!” As it was, we bit our lips, and kept the sentiment in its proper place.

Main Dining Room, 1878

Main Dining Room, 1878

The half-past eight arrangement for breakfast was highly satisfactory to all parties. To tell the truth, the arrangement seemed much more satisfactory than the breakfast. But that was to be expected: for students are proverbial grumblers; and the occasional remarks overheard about “spreading things out” and a “consistent evenness” must have been the product of thoughtlessness or—the north side of the dining-hall. However that may have been, it was indisputably proved that “a short horse is soon curried.” Prayers after breakfast brought back “ye olden time,” and reminded us that Thanksgiving Day was not appointed for the sole purpose of eating turkey. Some, of us had difficulty in realizing this fact, and it required a great deal of logic to convince us; but in time we all assented to it.

Student Studying, ca. 1896

Student Studying, ca. 1896

As soon as practicable we joined the company of anxious and scribbling Juniors in the library, who were poring over Shakespeare and Lamb and Froude in a last desperate struggle with those eternal essays. Burying ourself in a corner, we proceeded to pound our head against a wall of books, hoping that such a performance would send ideas showering upon the paper. Judging from analogy and experience, we concluded that every other girl was doing about the same thing. As fast as a respectable number of ideas were thus knocked out, one after another departed, wearing that particular smile of relief which is especially exasperating to the captive ones.

Thanksgiving Menu, 1872

Thanksgiving Menu, 1872

For two hours or more before dinner the grounds were pervaded by people “getting up an appetite.” This was preparatory to “getting up a toilet,” and both objects were accomplished with a wonderful degree of success. To describe the former would be unkind; to describe the latter would be impossible. Behold us, then, O imaginative reader, seated in the dining-hall at half past three, each with her “own particular,” her best gown, best behavior, best smile, and best appetite. The dinner was gotten up in the very best style of our steward, and was as like the one of last year as anything well could be. Those brave individuals who began with the “intention of partaking of every dish, gave up in despair before half accomplishing their purpose. It was, indeed, rumored that one plucky damsel had achieved the glorious work, but she has not since been heard from. The question of time was clearly not involved in the solution of this problem, for whatever in that line cannot be accomplished in three hours, is so infinitesimal that it may practically be disregarded.

We draw a veil over the hour that followed. Enough to say, that at its expiration we seated ourselves in chapel to listen to readings by the President. His kindness in reading to us was only exceeded by the excellence of his elocution. The selections were from the “Merchant of Venice,” and included nearly all the favorite scenes.

President John H. Raymond and Lady Principal Harriet W. Terry

President John H. Raymond and Lady Principal Harriet W. Terry


Miss Terry received in the parlors till nine o’clock, when we mustered our forces tor a fresh attack in the dining-hall. All things considered, the victory which we achieved was marvelous. We accomplished all that could reasonably have been expected of us.

The spirits of just men made perfect, held undisputed sway over the house that night. Our ancestors from time out of mind passed in solemn procession before our astonished vision. Ghosts of long-forgotten friends with mournful visages, shook the finger of reproach at us. Hollow-eyed children, imps of darkness, weird and fantastic forms, floated around our pillows, and the air was full of heavy oppression. Night was eternal; the sun had set forever; the firmament was a blank; existence was just becoming utterly unbearable, when a vigorous shake from our room-mate recalled our wandering wits.

However blessed the man who invented Thanksgiving may be, the demented individual who got out a patent on the day after, should have been forced to leave the country.

You can read this account in its original form on pages 124-126 of the Vassar Miscellany, January 1873.