The making of me? There was one woman in Coney Island — I can’t right now recall her name — but she was the beginning of me being a lesbian. – Mabel Hampton, 1979
In honor of this, my inaugural themstory, I wanted to get to the root of queer history: the word “story.” For generations, our histories were preserved not in books or movies or college courses, but in tales told in bars and beds, passed from eager queer mouth to hungry queer ear. It was a personal and precarious tradition, a cross between an inheritance and a game of telephone. Our history was quite literally alive, existing only in the minds and hearts of those who lived it, heard it, and shared it.
Today, I want to share the gift of the story of Mabel Hampton, a dancer, singer, and domestic worker who lived as an out black lesbian in New York City from 1920 until her death in 1989. Her story was preserved by Joan Nestle, a co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and one of Mabel’s closest friends. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, she interviewed Mabel multiple times, producing an archive of recordings that is as profound as it is domestic. Mabel’s fascinating life is interspersed with the daily routines of living, as the two women quiet barking dogs, discuss mutual friends, and try to outwait the constantly ringing phone.
Mabel was born in 1903 in North Carolina, and moved to New York City as a young girl. The uncle she had come to live with was abusive, and at the age of just eight years old, Mabel ran away. On her own, she took to the subway — then a strange and new creation — and ended up in New Jersey, where she was taken in and raised by a working-class black family.
Mabel turned seventeen in 1920, and soon after began living and working in Harlem. That same year, women got the vote, Prohibition accidentally ushered in the age of speakeasies and bathtub gin, and the subway fare to Coney Island was lowered to just five cents, turning it into the infamous “Nickel Empire.” The Great Migration had spread a diaspora of black Southerners across the northern United States, and Harlem was becoming the center of black thought, literature, and arts. The Twenties were just beginning to roar, and Mabel saw all of it.
Mabel began her life on the stage as a dancer and singer with an all-black female ensemble at Coney Island. There, she met an older woman who introduced her to the word “lesbian.” Although she had fooled around with women before, this was the moment when Mabel realized there was a word for her desires, and for people like her. “I said to myself, well, if that’s what it is, I’m already in it!” she told Joan Nestle. The two only had one night together before the woman (who was married) had to return to Philadelphia. Of that night, all Mabel would say was, “she taught me quite a few things. I knew some of them, but she taught me the rest.”
Mabel didn’t stay at Coney Island long. From there, she moved onto bigger and better stages, mostly up in Harlem, which was now the red-hot center of New York City nightlife. Mabel performed at the Garden of Eden and the Lafayette Theater, and she spent her time with many of the most prominent queer black women in the city: comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, entertainer Gladys Bentley, singer Ethel Waters (and her girlfriend, dancer Ethel Williams), and heiress and socialite A’Lelia Walker. “I had so many different girlfriends it wasn’t funny,” Mabel recalled many years later.
But The Twenties weren’t all jazz and gin. In 1924, Mabel and a friend were set up by the police and arrested as prostitutes. At the time, being an unescorted woman at a bar was often considered enough evidence for a conviction on prostitution charges. The Magistrate who heard Mabel’s case, Judge Jean Norris, was New York City’s first female judge. She had a reputation for being heavily biased against both black women and sex workers. Eventually, she would be removed from the bench for her harsh sentences, but not before sending Mabel to the Bedford Hills Reformatory for Women for three years.
Like most prisons, Bedford Hills was full of queer women (in fact, the first superintendent was a lesbian named Katharine Bement Davis), and Mabel met many queer women while incarcerated. She even found ways to use her time at Bedford to her advantage: because she was considered a “model prisoner,” after she was free, she got the Bedford administration to intercede on her behalf with employers who underpaid or overworked her.
Shortly after leaving Bedford Hills, Mabel also left the stage. Performing wasn’t her passion, it was just a job that was available to a young black woman with an eighth-grade education. And, as all women in show business know, it was a job that came with its own risks. “Every place I worked at,” Hampton told Nestle, “some man would feel my pussy and I’d have to leave.” Afterward, Mabel worked as a house cleaner, which is how she originally met Joan Nestle’s mother, who was briefly her employer, and afterwards, a life-long friend.
Photo by Courtesy Lesbian Herstory Archives, Mabel Hampton collection
In 1932, Mabel met the love of her life, Lillian Foster. The two lived together in the Bronx until Lillian’s death in 1978. They were always at the center of a large social group of queer women, and eventually donated their personal papers to the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). Mabel become an integral part of the LHA; without their pioneering work preserving the stories and ephemera of queer women, we would know little about her life.
In 1985, Mabel was named Grand Marshall of the New York City Pride Parade, which she had marched in for years with Service and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE). The year before, she had been invited to address the audience at the parade, and she spoke about her decades of experience as a black lesbian in America:
I, Mabel Hampton, have been a lesbian all my life, for eighty-two 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.
For the last few years of her life, Mabel lived with Joan Nestle, in the apartment that housed the first iteration of the LHA. In 1989, she passed away after an extended battle with pneumonia. Her story lives on, however, and provides us with a peerless account of early black lesbian life in New York City.
Rest in power, Mabel Hampton.