Institutional Memory of Racialism at Vassar

“Matthew Vassar is still with us, from one Founder’s Day to the Next.”
—Institutional Memory of Racialism at Vassar

Content warning: This work contains language and images that some may find deeply disturbing.

Vassar College (“Vassar”) has long burnished a reputation of being “progressive” in its values and ethics, dating back to the founding of the College by Matthew Vassar. That reputation stems primarily from its role as one of America’s first degree-granting higher education institutions dedicated to the education of women. Less well-known and appreciated is that Vassar was the last of the Seven Sister Schools to accept Black students.

Even less well known, until recently revealed by the unearthed Wolven Glass Plate Negative Collection 1 (“WGPNC”), is the prevalence of Vassar students wearing and performing in blackface 2 in school-sanctioned minstrel bands and pageants during the early 20th century. The WGPNC reveals that year after year, Vassar students (along with faculty and administrators, including the President at the time, MacCracken) wore blackface at Founder’s Day, a campus-wide celebration of the birthday of Matthew Vassar (“MV”), the College’s founder.

This begs the question, what is the relationship between the acceptability of blackface mockery and celebrations memorializing Vassar’s founder? It is convenient to assume that this relationship is mere coincidence: that students in the early 20th century were enacting the racist fantasies of their day and thus sit distinct from the life and legacy of MV. However, I suggest that it is too convenient of a conclusion to accept that there is no relationship between MV himself and racist performances on a day designed to memorialize MV as founder.

In this paper, I suggest two things: 1) While MV did not seem to make an explicit policy prohibiting Black students from attending Vassar, policies limiting a Vassar education to white women were central, critical, and basic to MV’s formation of the College. In short, MV’s racialist codes that restricted a Vassar education to white women were powerfully implicit and determinative in MV’s understanding of the purpose of the institution he created. In this context, I use the term “racialist” as defined by historical scholar Robert Johnson: believing in clear “differences between races,” which constitutes an implicit form of racism 3. 2) Long after MV’s death, these racialized origins continued to be passed down in multiple ways. Most obvious is the institutionalization of “Founder’s Day” at Vassar, a day of revelry, performance, and athletic contest all devoted to honoring MV. By using the category of the “parasocial,” a concept developed by scholars to denote a relationship between an individual and someone they do not personally know, Vassar’s students preserved and promulgated the essential commitments MV had to whiteness. A Miscellany News article from 1935 exemplifies such a connection to MV during 20th-century Founder’s Day celebrations: “Matthew Vassar is still with us, from one Founder’s Day to the next” 4. This is to say that these students are potentially unconsciously picking up on, and acting in accordance with, MV’s original racialist ideology.

Part I: MV, a Self-Styled Progressive Relying on Principles of Racialism

In an 1864 diary entry, MV noted that his intention in founding Vassar was to actualize his view that “education and liberty … walk hand in hand” 5. In comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln by calling himself and Lincoln the “Two Noble Emancipists,” MV equates his providing women with “liberty” in the form of educational freedom to “emancipating women” (“A Place at the Table” 6). However, comparing himself to Lincoln is grandiose; as compared to Lincoln, MV imagined women’s “emancipation” in very severe and restrictive terms. Lincoln’s goal in emancipating enslaved people was to end the mistreatment of all Black individuals, which would improve their quality of life. However, contrary to Lincoln’s advancement of all Black people, MV’s administrative policies served to limit a Vassar education to white women. In accordance with the concept of racialism, these segregationist policies reflect institutionalizing the idea of inherent differences among racial groups, which perpetuated unequal access to educational resources, as will be explored below.

I will begin by exploring MV’s narrow vision of educational “emancipation” for the white women Vassar intended to serve. MV believed that the women should use their education to further “home happiness.” This is a covert way of saying that educated women could better cater to their husbands. This is reflected in MV’s exchange with Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Editress” of Godey’s Lady Book. According to the Vassar College Encyclopedia, Hale wrote to MV to express “the importance of training women to promote ‘Christian character’ and ‘home happiness’” and that “we want true women taught to devote all their duties as women … [to] their families the sweet fealty of womanhood in its beauty of virtue and piety” 7. In response, MV expressed “his delight in finding a kindred view of women’s education,” reflecting that his view of women’s education was that it existed to increase male happiness in the home, rather than to facilitate women’s careers 8. Unlike Lincoln’s emancipation, this was far from radical.

However, Black women were not welcome to partake in even this limited educational “emancipation” created by MV; only white women would be granted admission to Vassar. MV’s intended student population is reflected by the person whom he created the school for: his white, affluent step-niece, Lydia Boothe 9. MV’s diaries suggest that he was initially significantly involved in determining such administrative policies at Vassar. In an 1865 entry, he wrote: “sick and tired of College business, no one to help me except ‘Scow,’ Doct. Raymond and Swan” 10. While a policy excluding Black women from admission to Vassar was not written explicitly, “Spotlight on Vassar College” reveals that “Beatrix McCleary was the first Black person knowingly admitted to Vassar in 1940,” nearly 80 years after the school initially opened its doors 11. The lack of a written record of Vassar’s exclusionary admissions policy, despite the obvious adherence to it, indicates that its refusal to admit Black women was normalized to such an extent that it did not require an official acknowledgment.

“...the necessity of paying so large an annual fee for board and tuition excludes from the College many of the class who would be most benefited by its advantages.”

John Raymond

Alongside prohibitive admissions policies, the high tuition set prior to Vassar’s opening would have precluded virtually all Black women from attaining a Vassar education. Based on such policies, “The Early Graduates of Vassar College” reports that early Vassar students were overwhelmingly part of the rising middle class because “it was the increasingly affluent and able middle class who were more inclined toward this kind of experiment” 12. For example, Develder notes that Sarah Glazier, among the first graduates of Vassar, had a father who after selling groceries in Hartford, Connecticut, expanded his business, creating a wholesale operation, which reflects the entrepreneurial spirit of this socio-economic class 13. Further reflecting their self-made spirit, the socioeconomic status’ of this initial class of Vassar students was “a lot like Matthew Vassar… they tend[ed] to be people who ha[d] built their own fortunes rather than inherited them” 14. However, setting tuition at this rate, $350, excluded penniless women 15. Vassar’s second President, John Raymond, speaks to this issue in a reflection on early tuition at Vassar: “the necessity of paying so large an annual fee for board and tuition excludes from the College many of the class who would be most benefited by its advantages” 16. Most notably, paying Vassar’s tuition would have most likely been unattainable for the families of Black women; in 1870, just nine years after Vassar’s founding, the racial wealth gap was a stark ratio of $4 for Black Americans per every $100 that white Americans possessed 17.

Additionally reflective of MV’s conception of women’s educational “emancipation” are the racialist overtones of Vassar’s “white angels” program, which express a clear boundary between the moral virtues associated with blackness and whiteness. According to a Miscellany News article, the program is a direct result of MV’s command: “they started when Matthew Vassar opened the College doors” 18. The white angels were a group of middle-aged female Vassar employees tasked with working as desk attendants and watching over students in each residential dorm. They earned their name by wearing “white uniforms—and sometimes white hair” 19. In acting as the “gatekeeper” of a dorm, a white angel protected students; she was metaphorically “keeping a watchful eye over each of her children” 20. While having a white angel in each dorm was helpful to ensure that students only be sent the correct incoming guests and that only relevant calls were routed to student rooms, the title insinuates that safety, comfort, and reliability—all “angelic qualities”—are associated with whiteness.

...Matthew Vassar’s original conception of women’s education reflects racialism, placing emphasis on the distinction between races.

Furthermore, MV’s social milieu reveals that he would have been exposed to views that were in favor of Black education, which potentially reveals a level of intentionality in his exclusion of Black women from Vassar’s “emancipation.” MV largely socialized with men who dedicated their lives to the educational advancement of minority groups. For example, one of his close friends was advocate Smith Sheldon, who, per the Vassar Encyclopedia, “professed a deep-seated interest in the ‘education of the freedman of the south’” 21. Sheldon, using the term Freedman in reference to formerly-enslaved Black individuals, was an early activist for the educational rights of the Black community. His publishing house, Sheldon, Blakeman, & Co., even published a book entitled The Republican Platform, which emphasized the rights of Black individuals by stating that Black individuals were entitled to the same “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that the United States Constitution promised, which would allow the United States to constitute “a more perfect union, establish justice… promote the general welfare” 22.

All things considered, MV’s original conception of women’s education reflects racialism, placing emphasis on the distinction between races. Firstly, admissions policies and exorbitant tuition costs that selectively excluded Black women from attending Vassar indicate the existence of systematized practices that differentiate the access to higher education provided to women based on their race. Likewise, the “white angels” program begun under MV reflects stereotypical views of the greater purity of white women on Vassar’s campus during this time period. Finally, MV’s racially progressive social strata indicate that this “othering” (both exclusion from a Vassar education and subtly stereotyping) of Black women may have been an informed decision.

Part II: Applying a Parasocial Framework

An article in the Vassar Encyclopedia, “Monumental Honors,” reflects MV’s desire to have an enduring legacy: it was not his “desire to have … the work executed during [his] lifetime” 23. Based on a 1914 Miscellany News article in which an emeritus professor at Vassar, Miss Amy Reed, stated that MV had entrusted students with “the future of the College,” it is worth considering whether a portion of the continuity of MV’s highly-desired legacy was to be achieved by Vassar students perpetuating his racialist ideology after his death 24. In order to do so, I will explore the continuation of Vassar students’ relationship with MV during the early 20th century, the time period in which blackface was performed during Founder’s Day.

Students in the early 20th century, after MV’s death, may have been inclined to honor MV based on what can best be characterized as a parasocial relationship. According to “Parasocial Relationships: The Nature of Celebrity Fascinations,” parasocial relationships, a term coined by R. Richard Wohl and Donald Horton, are “one-sided relationships, where one party extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence” 25. Medical News Today specifies that a parasocial relationship can occur with a deceased individual, which would apply to a relationship between early 20th-century Vassar students and MV 26.

“ the name of Matthew Vassar, that ‘Founder’ be spelled with a capital F.”

Miscellany News

Such a relationship was formed in part based on stories passed down from Vassar alumnae, who were students during MV’s lifetime and had a direct relationship with him. Thus, it is necessary to first consider the relationship between MV and these Vassar students. The students viewed MV as God-like, as portrayed in a Miscellany News article, in which one student even demanded: “in the name of Matthew Vassar, that ‘Founder’ be spelled with a capital F” 27. The alumnas’ basis for viewing MV in this inflated way was an overly intimate relationship between themselves and him. For example, he wrote to one student, Sarah Stillson, that “I would have been glad to have taken each of you [Vassar students] by the hand, had an opportunity offered” 28. This relationship can be understood as a somewhat pseudo-parental relationship. MV never had children of his own and, in a letter to Stillson, referred to Vassar students as his “college children” 29.

A comparison to the relationship between a founder and students at another early all-women’s educational institution reveals that the interpersonal connection between MV and students at Vassar was unusual. Compared to MV, the founder of Mount Holyoke College (“Holyoke”), Mary Lyon, had a professional and more distant relationship with Holyoke students during her presiding, setting forth requirements for entrance exams and creating rules for students, including that they must perform domestic duties, an early form of work/study 30. She served solely as a managerial and authoritative figure. In keeping with Mary Lyon’s bounded relationship with Holyoke students, Founder’s Day celebrations honoring her did not begin until 1891, after Lyon’s death 31. Comparatively, Founder’s Day celebrations honoring MV began in 1866, just five years after Vassar was founded, and while MV was alive.

MV’s awareness of students’ overblown image of him is reflected in his cited reason for stepping down from his administrative duties during John Raymond’s time (1864–1878) as president of Vassar. During Raymond’s presidential presiding, MV resigned his direct control of College matters due to his ill health to use his time to enjoy the “reward of his labors, the spontaneous devotion proffered to him by the early students of the College” 32.

Hosting students in his home would be regarded by the early Vassar students as an especially kind gesture.

Alumnae’s perpetual passing down their view of MV as a “God” to subsequent 20th-century Vassar students is reflected in various Miscellany News articles authored by the alumnae. One particular story, as documented in a Miscellany News article dated April 30, 1926, paints MV as generous in his relationships with students: “we are told of … when the students, lunch baskets in hand, set out to spend the day at Mr. Vassar’s old home in Springside” 33. Hosting students in his home would be regarded by the early Vassar students as an especially kind gesture in light of the tight restrictions imposed on student activities during the first several years of the College. For example, students were not allowed to “leave campus unless escorted by a teacher” and students in their junior or senior years could only attend church or go shopping in Poughkeepsie 34

The 20th-century Vassar students would have been particularly vulnerable to adopting these positive views of MV due to their gratitude to him for providing them with access to higher education, which women had previously been almost wholly denied. An October 1915 Miscellany News article reflects students’ awareness of the opportunities that MV has afforded them, in which a student wrote, “we live in retrospect the half-century which has passed since Matthew Vassar … gave to [women] the opportunity of gaining intellectual development” 35.

An additional factor that was the basis for a parasocial relationship between early 20th-century Vassar students and MV was pressure from administrative faculty to commemorate MV. In a 1916 address to students, President MacCracken reportedly hailed MV as an example that the students should follow 36. Several years later, as reported in a May 3, 1922 issue of the Miscellany News, President MacCracken addressed students from his doorstep: “he spoke of Matthew Vassar’s generous spirit in founding Vassar College and his largeness of plan which made possible the establishment of this College” 37. Additionally, during this address “the President urged that this spirit of democracy and harmony of the founder should be recognized by the students of today [sic]” 38. These speeches by President MacCracken reflect the pressure put on students by administrators to both view MV positively and act in his honor.

“He watches every one of us,
Keeps track of where we go,
He knows which ones are loitering
And if we work or no.”

Further, MV-related paraphernalia was widely marketed to students. The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar was repeatedly advertised in the Miscellany News and the Vassar Quarterly. At least seven issues of the Miscellany News and Vassar Quarterly in the months leading up to Founder’s Day in 1916, the work’s publication date, encouraged students to purchase the book, which touted MV as “a pioneer champion of women’s education” 39.

MV’s “greatness” being repeatedly reiterated to 20th-century students by alumnae, the Vassar administration, and on-campus publications was effective in constructing a parasocial relationship: The 20th-century students’ relationship with MV is shown by the closeness they claimed to feel toward him and their expression of his continued influence on their decisions, even nearly 50 years after his death; students widely created art dedicated to MV, reflecting their feeling of continued connection to him. For example, a 1917 issue of the Miscellany News contains a student-authored poem, “The Portrait,” which reads:

“Now Matthew Vassar built this place
In eighteen sixty-five;
And even from that day to this,
His spirit’s still alive.

He watches every one of us,
Keeps track of where we go,
He knows which ones are loitering
And if we work or no.” 40.

Part III: Student Racialism as a Reflection of Parasocial Connection to MV

Now that I have separately established both MV’s racialist ideology, which emphasized the clear distinction between whiteness and blackness, and students’ continued parasocial relationship to MV during the 20th century, we can examine whether Vassar students were acting in accordance with MV’s legacy in partaking in school-sanctioned activities that “othered” people of color.

Firstly, the Vassar students held colonial beliefs and partook in colonial activities. Such displays of colonialism clearly highlight the belief that white individuals are supposedly “superior” to Black individuals. MV himself held colonial views; MV’s beliefs are displayed in The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar when he speaks to the distinction between “civilised [sic] nations,” such as the United States, and other nations (that presumably defy Western standards) 41. Speaking about the civility of such nations implies that he believes in the supremacy of Western civilization. Reflecting students’ similar colonial attitude, “Vassar Women: An Informal Study” noted the following statement from the 1939 Student Handbook, produced by the Vassar Student Association:

“We feel that the Students’ Association has reached the point in its development where it can look beyond its own immediate problems and establish contact with … students of other nationalities and races in order to reach broader and deeper insight into the interests and problems of the student world” 42.

This statement reflects a colonial attitude because it suggests that Vassar’s Students’ Association, an all-white group, is in a position to offer some type of enlightenment or insight to students of different nationalities.

A student mission trip to Palestine provides an example of 20th-century Vassar students partaking in colonial activities. The objective of the trip was to force Jewish women of color to adopt supposed white ways of life, including converting them to Christianity. The trip was documented in Three Vassar Girls in the Holy Land, the last book in a series of travel documentation books written by Elizabeth W. Champney, a Vassar graduate. During this trip, the students met their first non-Christian, non-Anglo-American individual, a Palestinean Jewish woman named Bird, and treated her inferiorly. Bird’s identity is reflected in “Domesticating Palestine” where she is described as “Jewish, Eastern-European born” 43. The chapter recounting the students’ interactions with Bird is aptly titled “A Peculiar Girl,” reflecting the students’ opinion on her nonconforming religious affiliation 44. The students stated that they would be happy to welcome Bird to the “Vassar family,” so long as she adopt “Anglo-American type and culture” 45. “Domesticating Palestine” analyzes this moment and concludes that the students’ view of Bird is that despite her being “a high-minded, noble-hearted girl,” she must “assume both whiteness and an acceptance of Protestant values” because such values are vital for her belonging in America, and particularly at Vassar 46. This interaction with Bird, encouraging Palestinian women to assimilate into allegedly superior American norms (acting white-ly and practicing Protestantism) under the guise of welcoming them to the “Vassar family,” reflects the long, pervasive influence of MV’s ideology on Vassar students. Moreover, “Domesticating Palestine” theorizes that the Vassar alumna’s book was intended to conceptualize Jewish Palestineans as “proto-Protestants,” indicating that it would be unchallenging to convert them to Protestantism 47. In summary, the students, in accordance with MV’s racialist writings, sought to “civilize” Palestinian Jews.

20th-century Vassar community members seemed to view themselves as uniquely racially progressive as compared to America at large

Similarly, the blackface performances on Founder’s Day during this same era reflect students mocking and stereotyping Black individuals in a way that highlights Black “inferiority” and supposed incivility. For example, in a photo from the Glass Plate Negative Collection taken on Founder’s Day in 1922, students wore blackface and tattered clothing 48. According to the Jim Crow Museum, this is a portrayal of the “coon caricature” 49. A “coon,” abbreviated from raccoon, was portrayed in blackface minstrel shows as immature, lazy, and inarticulate. The character wears worn clothing as a representation of being “too lazy or too cynical to attempt to change his lowly position” 50. The students playing into typical minstrel tropes, such as the “coon,” suggests that broader American societal norms supplemented the racialist ideology that 20th-century students may have adopted from MV. 

A black-and-white historical photo of Vassar students in racist costumes, performing outside.
Students in costume and blackface at the faculty-student baseball game. Photo: Edmund L. Wolven, 1922. Vassar College Digital Library.

Interestingly, 20th-century Vassar community members seemed to view themselves as uniquely racially progressive as compared to America at large. President MacCracken’s aforementioned 1922 address suggested that the “principle of equality of opportunity [at Vassar] should not be allowed to be changed by such things as sectional and national prejudices” 51. While MacCracken seems to be categorizing Vassar as progressive, he overlooks the discordance between his proclaimed progressivism and the blackface performances occurring on campus during Founder’s Day.

Thus, MV’s original ideology is evident in 20th-century Vassar students’ colonial activities and, most notably, in Founder’s Day blackface performances. The students’ partaking in both colonial activities and blackface suggests that they, like MV, believe that white individuals are distinctly different and “civilized” as compared to people of color. Knowing this, it is ironic that President MacCracken would suggest that Vassar was internally any less racially bigoted than America’s “sectional and national prejudices” during the 20th century.

Part IV: Takeaways and the Future of Founder’s Day

In summary, MV’s racialist ideology informed his creation of Vassar as an exclusively white women’s college. Based on a parasocial relationship with him, rooted in alumnae and faculty’s overblown opinion of MV, and the marketing of MV-related literature in student publications, Vassar students during the early 20th century may have subconsciously adopted MV’s racialist opinions.

Recognizing the increased prejudice resulting from students’ parasocial connection to MV highlights the danger inherent in blindly idolizing a historical figure and illustrates the importance of exercising independent thinking. Lucy Maynard Salmon, a historian at Vassar from 1887 to 1927, emphasized “go[ing] to the source,” meaning that students should thoroughly investigate claims, starting at the source, rather than blindly believing information that is presented to them 52. According to Salmon’s school of thought, to maintain the integrity of an institution like Vassar, one must view an authority figure like MV critically, rather than giving credence to potentially biased second-hand sources.

In a spring 2023 article, “Complicating Founder’s Day,” Larry Hertz raised an interesting question that is especially relevant given the racialist understanding of MV proposed by this paper: What alternate “founders” can Founder’s Day celebrate 53? He proposed that on Founder’s Day, instead of honoring MV, Vassar should honor as an alternate “founder,” Vassar community members who have pivotally fostered inclusivity. One proposed alternate “founder” is Vassar administrator Edward Pittman, “who founded the ALANA Cultural Center (recently renamed the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Cultural Center)” 54. The ALANA Center seeks to allow students to connect with their cultural identity and, through doing so, find comradery and community. Celebrating racial and cultural inclusivity at Vassar on Founder’s Day could offset past racial harm caused by Vassar students’ use of blackface on Founder’s Day, and MV’s larger legacy of racial exclusion at Vassar.


  1. Wolven Glass Plate Negative Collection photos of students dressing in blackface were captured at Founder’s Day celebrations beginning in 1900 and ending in 1932 (“Wolven Glass Plate Negative Collection”).

  2. In the context of this paper, the term “blackface” encompasses all performances of racial mockery, not only of Black-identifying individuals. It also includes “brownface” and “yellowface” – the use of makeup and dress to imitate South Asian (brownface), Latin American (brownface), or East Asian (yellowface) individuals. The use of all these subtypes of “blackface” were captured in photos taken on Founder’s Day within the Glass Plate Negative Collection (“Wolven Glass Plate Negative Collection”).

  3. Johnson 1

  4. Miscellany News, Volume XIX, 1

  5. “A Place at the Table”

  6. “A Place at the Table”

  7. “The Best Human…”

  8. “The Best Human…”

  9. “The Founders of Vassar”

  10. Vassar 12

  11. “Spotlight on Vassar College”

  12. Develder, Julia. “The Early Graduates of Vassar College.” Vassar College. Accessed 5 Nov. 2023.

  13. Develder, Julia. “The Early Graduates of Vassar College.” Vassar College. Accessed 5 Nov. 2023.

  14. Develder, Julia. “The Early Graduates of Vassar College.” Vassar College. Accessed 5 Nov. 2023.

  15. “A History of Vassar College”

  16. “John Raymond: A College for Women, in Poughkeepsie, NY”

  17. McKay

  18. Miscellany News, Volume CXLV, 5

  19. Lamb

  20. Miscellany News, Volume CXLV, 5

  21. “Civil War”

  22. Jewett 3–5

  23. “Monumental Honors”

  24. Miscellany News Volume 2, Number 1, 1

  25. “Parasocial Relationships”

  26. Martin

  27. Miscellany News, Volume VI, Number 2, 118

  28. Vassar 198

  29. Vassar 199

  30. “Mary Lyon: Documents and Writings”

  31. “Mary Lyon: Documents and Writings”

  32. Vassar 5

  33. Miscellany News, 30 April 1926, 1

  34. “Letters Home: Social Life at Vassar 1865–1880”

  35. Miscellany News, Volume I, Number 2, 2

  36. Miscellany News, Volume XLIV, Number 17, 1

  37. Miscellany News, Volume VI, Number 49, 1

  38. Miscellany News, Volume VI, Number 49, 1

  39. Vassar Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 2, 131

  40. Miscellany News, Volume 1, Number 32, 6

  41. Vassar 19

  42. Rogers 64

  43. Robey 368

  44. Three Vassar Girls in the Holy Land quoted in Robey 369

  45. Three Vassar Girls in the Holy Land quoted in Robey 370–371

  46. Robey 371

  47. Robey 369

  48. “Wolven Glass Plate Negative Collection”

  49. Pilgrim

  50. Pilgrim

  51. Miscellany News, Volume VI, Number 49, 1

  52. “Lucy Maynard Salmon” 1–2

  53. “Complicating Founder’s Day”, Larry Hertz

  54. Hertz

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