When Netflix announced the upcoming debut of Passing, I was overjoyed. Passing reminds me of a special era in my life, my time as an undergraduate student at Spelman College and the intellectual awakening that I experienced while there.
I first encountered Nella Larsen's Passing in 1994 when I was a "freshwoman" at Spelman. In the fall of my first year, I foolishly registered to take my English course on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3:00 p.m. That time wasn't particularly problematic on Mondays and Wednesdays, but it was hellish on Fridays, when I'd much rather be on the yard. The view from our classroom was breathtaking and I yearned to be anywhere but there. Also, not only was my class at 3:00 p.m., but it was on the third floor of Giles Hall, one of Spelman's oldest academic buildings. Giles was a popular place and even though it had an elevator, taking the stairs was often quicker.
Those treks to the top of Giles Hall were worth it, because it It was there that I first met Nella Larsen, and her novels Quicksand and Passing. I was intrigued by the protagonists in both, but especially by Passing's Clare. Spelman's curriculum, particularly the required African Diaspora and the World courses had awakened something in me, and encountering Nella Larsen's life and work only added to my budding understanding of myself. Through my coursework, I learned how Larsen channeled her own struggles with her identity into her work. I'm pretty sure that her work as a librarian at NYPL's 135th Street branch was briefly mentioned but it was only later that I would learn about that aspect of her life.
Fast forward almost fifteen years, and while working at Fort Valley State University, I encountered another mysterious woman of mixed racial heritage: Adella Hunt Logan (1863-1915). Logan was the sister of Henry Alexander Hunt, the principal of the Fort Valley High and Industrial School, the precursor to Fort Valley State University. I worked in the library at Fort Valley from 2009-2013. Terrence D. Smith and Sally J. Zepeda's excellent chapter, "Adella Hunt Logan, 1863-1915 : educator, woman's suffrage leader, and confidant of Booker T. Washington," introduced me to her marvelous yet tragic life. Like in Passing, Logan died in 1915 following a mysterious fall from the top of a building. Nella Larsen and Adella Hunt Logan's lives briefly intersected when Logan was transported to Tuskegee Institute's hospital, where Larsen, who also had brief career as a nurse, was in charge of the ward where Logan laid. Logan's great-granddaughter, Adele Logan Alexander, imagines what that encounter night have been like in her excellent biography, Princess of the Hither Isles: A Black Suffragist's Story from the Jim Crow South (Yale University Press). While there are some similarities between Logan's life and Clare's, notably, although Logan was light enough to pass, it can be argued that she used her ambiguous racial identity strategically to advance the plight of Black women.
Born in 1863 near Sparta, Hancock County, Georgia, Adella Hunt was the product of the union of parents of different races. Her father was a white planter and veteran of the Civil War. Her mother, Susan Hunt, was also a woman of mixed-race heritage; Susan's father Nathan Sayre, was a prominent judge in the county and her mother, "Cherokee" Mariah Lily, was a woman of white, Native American, and Black heritage. Henry and Susan Hunt raised their mixed-race children in relative peace on the Hunt familiy's land. Adella and her siblings attended school and she eventually enrolled in the normal education program at Atlanta University. After teaching for a few years in South Georgia, she was recruited to the recently-formed Tuskegee Institute in 1883, where she taught and served as the school's first librarian.
Logan is best known for her work as a champion of the vote for Black women. She rubbed shoulders with a virtual who's who of her day: Susan B. Anthony, George Washington Carver, Mary Church Terrell, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois were her contemporaries. Her brief but impactful work in the area of librarianship has not be explored. I was honored to share more about this aspect of her life in my forthcoming chapter, "A Hidden Figure: Adella Hunt Logan, Tuskegee Institute's First Librarian" which appears in The Black Librarian in America: Reflections, Resistance, and Reawakening.
Since I was first introduced to her back in 2009, I've often reflected on the ways that our lives intersected. My own family is mixed-race and originates from Sparta, Georgia. Logan and I bought graduated from Atlanta University. Perhaps more importantly, like her, I strive to make the work that I do meaningful to my larger community.
The Black Librarian in America: Reflections, Resistance, and Reawakening is scheduled for release in February 2022. You can pre-order a copy today. In the meantime, you can learn more about Nella Larsen's career as a librarian from the following resources:
Roffman, K. (2007). Nella Larsen, Librarian at 135th Street. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 53(4), 752-787.
Roffman, K. S. (2004). Museums, libraries, and the woman writer: Edith Wharton, Marianne MMoore, and Nella Larsen (Order No. 3125295). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global; ProQuest One Literature. (305113526).
Roffman, Karin. From the Modernist Annex : American Women Writers in Museums and Libraries, University of Alabama Press, 2010.
To learn more about Adella Hunt Logan fascinating life, check out the following resources.
Smith, T.D. & Zepeda, S.J. (2009). “Adella Hunt Logan: Educator, woman’s suffrage leader, and confidant of Booker T. Washington.” In The Varieties of Women’s Experiences: Portraits of Southern Women in the Post-Civil War Century. Edited by L.E. Rivers and C.E. Brown, Jr. (pp. 151-170). University Press of Florida.