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Mabel Hampton: Black Lesbian Pioneer

Lesbians in History

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Mabel Hampton

Mabel Hampton

© Lesbian Herstory Archives
It can be hard to find lesbian existence in our past. Many lesbians in history necessarily lived lives in the shadows. Any lesbian who dared to be out risked imprisonment, institutionalization in a mental hospital, losing her job and physical attack. But some of our foremothers were brave. They lived their lives as openly as they could. Thanks to these out-lesbians from the past, we have learned much about lesbian culture in the United States. Mabel Hampton is one such lesbian.

The following is a summary of Joan Nestle's Kessler Lecture (November 1992) entitled "I Lift My Eyes to the Hill: The Life of Mabel Hampton as Told by a White Woman." The original essay can be found in A Fragile Union, Cleis Press, 1998. Summary created by Erin Sexton-Sayler.

Mabel Hampton: Lesbian Pioneer

Mabel Hampton, a Black lesbian pioneer inspired many during her 87 year stay on this planet. Born in 1902 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Hampton’s mother died when she was just two months old. She grew up in the care of her grandmother, surrounded by chickens, hogs, a garden full of roses and vegetables, her maternal aunt, and of course, friends. She formed fond memories of North Carolina during this time and was forced to leave this haven of safety when her Grandmother died when Mabel was just 7 years old.

Hampton took the train to New York City where she went to live with her aunt and uncle. Treated poorly in that family and raped by her uncle, at 8 years old Hampton walked away from their home and set out on her own.

Between the ages of 8 and 17 Hampton lived with a white family in New Jersey, was wrongfully imprisoned for prostitution, and eventually found work dancing in an all women’s troupe that performed on Coney Island. For Hampton the 1920's were a time of dancing in all black productions, private parties with Jackie "Moms" Mabley and other Harlem Renaissance figures, and living amongst other dancers and lesbians. Mabel Hampton was "in the life."

Hampton left the chorus lines as work dried up, claiming that "I like to eat." She began a career of working as a cleaning woman for white families. Mabel Hampton is perhaps best recognized as a major contributor to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. Through out her adult life she collected all matter of memorabilia, letters, and records documenting her history and the world around her as a black woman and as a lesbian.

In 1932 Mabel Hampton met Lillian Foster. The two quickly fell in love and remained a couple until Lillian died in 1978. For 45 years they, along with various friends, formed a household that weathered World War II, the Civil Rights era, and the Stonewall Rebellion. Perhaps most interesting about Mabel Hampton is how integrated a life she led. She was surrounded by her lesbian contemporaries, volunteered for the New York Defense Recreation Committee collecting cigarettes and refreshments for soldiers during World War II., and was her community’s air raid service warden in 1943. Despite her meager salary she attended performances by the National Negro Opera Company and regularly contributed to the Martin Luther King Memorial Fund and later to gay organizations.

Mabel Hampton clipped articles, kept letters, and later donated her treasures to the Lesbian Herstory Archives so that she could be "a part of going on." She marched in the first national gay and lesbian civil rights march in Washington, appeared in the films Silent Pioneers and Before Stonewall. She inspired members of the gay and lesbian community in New York, and through her gifts to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, shared her tremendous history with the rest of the world. In 1984 Mabel Hampton addressed the crowds at New York City’s pride parade. She said "I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for 82 years, and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my black people."

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