One of America’s earliest lesbian
activists, Mabel Hampton, passed away on this day in 1989. A trailblazer, Mabel
was a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a dancer,
and a philanthropist for black and LGBT organizations across America.
“Mabel Hampton Sees the Pigeons at the Old Lesbian Herstory Archive, 1989″ (x).
Mabel Hampton was born on May 2,
1902 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her mother died just two months after
her birth, which left Mabel to be raised by her grandmother. Tragically, her
grandmother also passed away when Mabel was only 7-years-old. Adrift and with
no place to go her in her home state of North Carolina, she was put on a train
to New York City to live with her distant aunt and uncle. Her life in New York
was traumatic and the move would be a turning point in her life; after being
sexually abused by her uncle for months on end, Mabel ran away after less than
a year of living with him and her aunt.
After leaving her aunt and uncle’s
house, 8-year-old Mabel was taken in by a charitable white family. She lived with them in their home in New Jersey until she
was 17. Once she left the comfort of their home, she moved back to New York City and found work as a
dancer with an all-woman dance troupe at Coney Island. This career would carry
her throughout the boom of the Harlem Renaissance, when she danced in several
all-black troupes and found community with other prominent black lesbian and
gay artists such as Jackie “Moms” Mabley.
“Ms Hampton, and her beloved dog, Liberation, doing archives work at #13A, c.1977″ (x).
Mabel’s life partner was a woman
named Lillian B. Foster. The two met in 1932, long after Mabel had left the
fast life of the Harlem Renaissance and taken up work as a maid for white
families. Oddly enough, one of the daughters of these families, Joan Nestle,
would grow up to start the Lesbian Herstory Archives in 1974. In their later
years, Mabel and Lillian became active in the black lesbian community and
donated invaluable pieces of memorabilia, ephemera, letters, and other records from
their own personal history to the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Even after Lillian’s
death in 1978, Mabel continued her work as a lesbian activist; she appeared in
the documentaries Silent Pioneers and Before Stonewall, and spoke before
thousands at the 1984 New York Pride Parade where she proclaimed, “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.”