Learning that Zendaya and Reese Witherspoon have joined forces on a new film project is always welcome news, and it's even more exciting now that we have some details about the movie.
On the surface, this sounds like a feel-good plot — but it's actually in the thriller genre. Vassar didn't begin admitting Black students until the 1940s, but Hemmings, a descendant of slaves, was able to attend in the 1890s because her light skin tone meant she could pass as white.
The film is an adaption of the book The Gilded Years, by Karin Tanabe, an account of Hemmings' experience at Vassar. According to a 2000 feature in The Vassar Alumnae/i Quarterly, Hemmings successfully "passed" as white until just a few short weeks before graduation, when her roommate and the young woman's father began digging into her past.
The father of Hemmings' roommate sent a private investigator to Hemmings' hometown where they confirmed she was Black.
"We know our daughter went to Vassar as a white girl and stayed there as such. As long as she conducted herself as a lady she never thought it necessary to proclaim the fact that her parents were mulattoes," Hemmings’ father told reporters.
As graduation day neared, Hemmings was forced to plead her case with the college's president and was ultimately allowed to collect the diploma she'd earned.
As noted by Vassar Africana studies professor Joyce Bickerstaff, it was fairly common for light-skinned Black students to apply to colleges like Vassar. "There were large numbers of African Americans at that time and into the turn of the century [for whom passing] was a means to gain opportunities in education," Bickerstaff told The Vassar Alumnae/i Quarterly. "The country was under laws of segregation, and those families who had risen to that level of educational aspiration or economics were still excluded from most of the elite institutions."
Hemmings' story is a compelling one, and it's in amazing hands with Zendaya and Witherspoon.