As undergraduates, my mother and math major Lucy Kramer Cohen ’28, and Zora Neale Hurston ’28, worked for Franz Boas, professor of anthropology at Columbia University. The two women knew each other, and when Hurston received funds to start field research in April of that year, she knew she would not be attending Commencement. In the days when gowns were bought, not rented, Hurston sold hers (with her initials already embroidered in it) to Lucy Kramer.
My sister, Gene, and I had always heard that the gown was stored somewhere in our house in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Barnard with a major in German foreign-area studies, I spent the academic year 1964–65 at the Freie Universität Berlin. In one of my first days of living in the student village of the FU, the cleaning lady, Frau Loll, told me there was another American student downstairs. Anne Adams was finishing a Fulbright, about to move to a nearby apartment and teach at the JFK German-American Schule in Berlin. We became friends and have remained so ever since.
In 1993, Anne, a professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Accra at the University of Ghana, Legon. She phoned that summer to wish me a happy 50th birthday and to say she had adopted a Ghanaian baby girl whom she had named Zora, after Hurston. Eventually Adams brought her child home to Baltimore to meet her own mother, in her 80s. She also visited our house in Washington to introduce baby Zora to me and my mother, also an octogenarian. As my mother held Zora, she told Anne that when they did “the dig” in the house and found the gown, it would be Zora’s. (Lucy Kramer Cohen was not someone to throw things out and she had been living in the house for 65 years.)
My mother died at home on January 2, 2007, a few months short of her hundredth birthday. My sister and I, with our spouses, children, cousins and friends, worked to get the house ready for sale. (Our dad died in 1953.) Our mother used to refer to her various “collections”—many of which are now residing at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, as are Hurston’s papers, in part, because Lucy and our father, Felix S. Cohen, both worked crafting the legislation that became the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the “Indian New Deal.” Signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, it was meant to give American Indians more power over their lives and lands. Lucy Cohen contributed several chapters to her husband’s work, The Handbook of Federal Indian Law , still considered the bible in the field. Both of our parents were lifelong campaigners for civil rights, particularly those of Native Americans and African Americans.
On Easter Sunday, 2007, we were able to get to a previously inaccessible closet in our parents’ bedroom. There was a dress box containing the commencement gown with the initials ZNH embroidered inside the neckband. On the day we reached Anne and Zora to give them the news, a Legon colleague had asked Anne to teach his literature class for him in his absence; when she asked him what the text was, it was Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God . (Turn the page)
The gown has been with Anne and Zora ever since. A very large hem had to be taken down for young Zora; my mother was 4 feet 10 ¾ inches tall and Hurston was much taller. On May 17, 2015, at the Spelman College commencement, Zora Adams-Williams wore the gown bequeathed to her by Lucy Kramer Cohen. My husband, Graham, and I were privileged to be there to celebrate the spirits of two 1928 Barnard alumnae together with one young Spelman College graduate 87 years later.
Karen Cohen worked in city planning and in public radio, and spent most of her career in public health as a health educator and medical writer.
The gown is being donated in Lucy’s and young Zora’s names, to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Learn more about Lucy Kramer Cohen by watching Nancy Kramer Bickel’s film, A Twentieth Century Woman, Lucy Kramer Cohen, 1907–2007 . Alice Beck Kehoe ’56 wrote a book about Lucy and her husband, A Passion for the True and Just: Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal , published in 2014. •