Over the past 10 weeks, we have been revisiting a chapter of Vassar’s nineteenth century history. We wanted to learn about the institution’s past in order to better understand its present and its future, in hopes of exploring and rethinking how elite institutions can recreate themselves as multicultural, cosmopolitan, and inclusive. We began this journey by looking back at Vassar’s first known African American student: Anita Florence Hemmings.
Matriculating into Vassar in 1893, Hemmings passed as a white woman, in hopes that hiding her racial identity would give her to access to one of the most elite academic institutions in the world. Achieving a Vassar education among well-born, elite white women was a coup d’état for an African American woman born to parents of modest means.
However, living life as a white woman meant Hemmings was forced to leave behind her black heritage, an abandonment that would affect the lives of her family for generations. After being “outed” by her roommate Louise Taylor, a few days before her graduation in 1897, Vassar allowed Hemmings to graduate after a series of private meetings between then President and the Board of Trustees, as well as faculty.
Though Vassar has opened its doors to an increasingly diverse group of students over the years, there are aspects of Vassar’s turbulent history with inclusion and integration that still permeate the lives of students 121 years after Anita’s graduation.
Students from under-represented communities (i.e., first-generation, low-income, international, transfer and people of color) are helping to recreate Vassar in the twenty-first century, pushing our community to continue work around college access and retention. However, while higher education has helped democratized American society, it has also – at times – reified barriers and dividing lines between the privileged and the less fortunate. As liberal arts education is undergoing reevaluation, we all have a role to play in eradicating feelings of discomfort felt by some and creating a sense of belonging for all, and the way to do this is by looking back at our history.