Lesbian Herstory Archives AudioVisual Collections

Mabel Hampton Oral History Collection


Mabel Hampton Oral History Collection


Mabel Hampton (1902-1989) was an African-American lesbian, an activist, a domestic worker, and a dancer. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she lost her mother when she was only two years old. For the next five years, Mabel was raised by her maternal grandmother, but she too passed away. In 1909, she moved to Greenwich Village in New York City at age seven. Less than a year after moving in with her aunt, Mabel was raped by her uncle, a minister. She ran away to New Jersey, buying a bus ticket purchased with a nickel given to her by a woman on the street. Luckily, Mabel was taken in by a family that cared for her for the next several years.

As a young woman, Mabel gravitated toward the lively scene in Harlem. In 1920, when she was seventeen, Mabel was wrongfully arrested during a prostitution sting and sentenced to time in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. Upon her release, she danced at clubs like "The Garden of Joy", sang as a member of the Lafayette Theater Chorus, and performed with Harlem Renaissance stars such as Gladys Bentley. Mabel engaged in several relationships with women and lived openly as a lesbian.

In 1932, Mabel met Lillian Foster, who would be her partner until Lillian's death in 1978. With the Harlem Renaissance waning, Mabel sought out employment in other areas, primarily working as a domestic worker and hospital attendant. As a domestic, she worked for the family of Joan Nestle. Mabel and Joan developed a friendship that lasted for decades. When Joan started the Lesbian Herstory Archives in 1974, Mabel joined her as a founding member. Mabel donated her huge collection of lesbian pulp fiction novels and worked tirelessly with Joan and other volunteers to amass lesbian-related materials--literature, biographical information, academic publications, and ephemera--as a resource for the lesbian and gay community.

Mabel was also a vital, enduring element in the gay rights movement-she participated in every gay pride march that occurred during her lifespan, including the first, historic march and demonstration for gay rights in Washington, D.C., which took place in 1979. In 1985, Mabel was named the grand marshal of the New York City Gay Pride March. That same year, Mabel was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays.

After the Lesbian Herstory Archives were founded, Mabel carried the LHA banner in many marches. She also worked tirelessly for SAGE, an organization devoted to promoting advocacy and developing services for elderly members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. Interviews with Mabel are featured in "Before Stonewall" and "Silent Pioneers"; both movies document the struggle for gay rights and the efforts made to obtain equality.

Joan Nestle started recording Mabel's oral histories in the late seventies, realizing the importance of documenting Mabel's life story as an example of racial and sexual freedom. In these histories--many of which are featured on this website--Mabel discusses her relationships with women, her struggles with racism, and her identity as an African-American lesbian in the twentieth century. Mabel died of pneumonia in 1989 at the age of eighty-seven. Her life as an advocate, activist, performer, and storyteller lives on in the images and oral histories collected by the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Many of the resources below, as well as additional subject files, biographical information, images, and media about Mabel, lesbian history, and gay pride are available by visiting the LHA in person.


City University of New York. (2003). Queer ideas: The David R. Kessler lectures in lesbian and gay studies. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

DuPlessis, R. B., & Snitow, A. B. (1998). The feminist memoir project: Voices from women's liberation. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Hampton, M. (1979) "I didn't go back there anymore: Mabel Hampton talks about the south." In Feminary 10, 7-16.

Hogan, S., & Hudson, L. (1998). Completely queer: The Gay and Lesbian encyclopedia. New York: Henry Holt.

Lesbian Herstory Archives. Mabel Hampton special collection, including transcripts of oral history. Lesbian Herstory Archives, Brooklyn, NY.

Nestle, J. (1993). Excerpts from the Oral History of Mabel Hampton. Signs, 18, 4, 925-935.

Nestle, J. (1998). "I Lift My Eyes to the Hill: the Life of Mabel Hampton as told by a White Woman." In A fragile union: New & selected writings. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Nestle, J. (1991). "Surviving and More: Interview with Mabel Hampton". In Sinister Wisdom 43/44, Summer. Berkeley, CA.

Collection Items

  • 40656_ca_object_representations_media_117_original.jpg

    Mabel Hampton discusses, with Joan Nestle, gender identity, attraction, men, and marriage. Mabel Hampton also discusses nicknames she shared with Lillian Foster, including "Little Bear" and "Big Bear." They look at photographs and reminisce about Coney Island, buying new clothes, and Nestle's preparation of slideshows for the LHA. The second half of the recording covers a few takes of stories surrounding Mabel's time living with Joan and Deb after an apartment fire, Mabel and Lillian's nicknames for each other, and the meaning of Mabel's fashion choices.
  • 58746_ca_object_representations_media_116_original.jpg

    Pam Hicks and Morgan Gwenwald chat with Mabel Hampton over breakfast about mundane topics, including lost keys and colors. The three get in a car and try to find the cemetery where Mabel has purchased a plot to be buried in. They locate the cemetery, but it is closed to visitors, so they proceed on to see if they can find where she purchased the tombstone.
  • 58746_ca_object_representations_media_116_original.jpg

    Morgan Gwenwald visited Mabel Hampton at Pam Hicks' place. Over breakfast, they talked about the dreams Mabel had been having lately, how people thought about her. Morgan made plans to visit Lillian's cemetery with Mabel together and listened to a tape that Mary gave Mabel.
  • 79959_ca_object_representations_media_11_original.jpg

    Mabel discusses meeting Lillian Foster, her wife, Lillian's childhood, and their life together in the community as well as various events they were a part of against the backdrop of World War II.
  • 87466_ca_object_representations_media_106_original.jpg

    Side A: Mabel Hampton describes meeting other lesbians and associating with other women "in the life". Also discussed is her experience during the 1920s of being set up and sentenced to serve three years for a fabricated prostitution charge at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. Side B: Mabel's WWII era activities, including being an Air Raid Warden in Harlem, and meeting married women who ""came out"" during their husband's absence due to the war."
  • 5530_ca_object_representations_media_12_original.jpg

    Mabel discusses the importance of lesbian writing and how she considers being a lesbian to be the most important aspect in shaping her life. She goes on to give a description of her childhood. She also describes the the girl with whom she had her first lesbian experience.
  • 79959_ca_object_representations_media_11_original.jpg

    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel talks about Lilian Foster, her partner, that she has never dated any man, and is a feminine type of lady who likes to dress up.
  • 81431_ca_object_representations_media_19_original.jpg

    Side A: Some discussion of when Mabel first heard the word lesbian, her experiences as a dancer. Side B: Mable describes her experiences caring for children, finding freedom as a child, running away from her aunt and uncle to New Jersey to live with the White family, and her spirituality.
  • 1652_ca_object_representations_media_136_original.jpg

    Mabel discusses her early life as a lesbian in the Village between the two world wars, including the rooming house where she lived and the parties she attended. She describes how women dressed, what they ate at the parties, what they did at the parties, including dancing, the records they listened to, and the general social life of these parties. She describes the interracial relations between white and black lesbians. She also discusses the language lesbians used to describe themselves at the time, including "bulldaggers", "lady lovers", and "butches". She also tells the story of a large lesbian marriage ceremony in Central Park West, officated by a gay minister named Rev. Monroe and how the couple managed to get an offical marriage certificate. She also discusses gay life in Harlem and the New York City drag balls.
  • 24608_ca_object_representations_media_115_original.jpg

    Mabel talks about her life at theater Lafayette on Coney Island in the 20s. She also talks about the dress code of her and her friends; also the language describing lesbians back in the 1920s.
  • 50337_ca_object_representations_media_66_original.jpg

    Mabel describes her life after being released from Bedford Hills, relationships with women in the early 20th century, economic and working situation, and more details about her family history (including the murder of her mother, the death of her father, Mabel's rape by her uncle).
  • 55447_ca_object_representations_media_126_original.jpg

    Mabel describes her 1923 arrest (at age 18) and term at Bedford Hills Prison, and the period shortly thereafter.
  • 87466_ca_object_representations_media_106_original.jpg

    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses her relationships during her twenties, including how and why she chose her sexual partners and her relationships with married women. She relates a story about being caught with her partner's husband and hiding under the bed.
  • 16045_ca_object_representations_media_99_original.jpg

    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Side A: Mabel discusses Coney Island, and her relationships with women, including Mildred Mitchell.
  • 2420_ca_object_representations_media_94_original.jpg

    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel Hampton reminisces about her life in the early 1920s. Mabel talks about going to Coney Island, cabarets, and various parties around New York City where women could meet other women. She discusses her friends and relationships with particular emphasis on Lillian Foster.
  • 39058_ca_object_representations_media_35_original.jpg

    Oral history interview with Mabel Hampton. Side A: Mabel sings and talks about her life with Lillian Foster, and stories from her youth. Side B: She describes her life in Jersey City, Coney Island and the rape by her uncle. She also talks about the pitfalls of falling in love, and being a working woman at 80 years old.
  • 14478_ca_object_representations_media_122_original.jpg

    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel talks about her childhood; coming out with a woman she met at Coney Island; her relationship with Lillian Foster; the LHA and her respect for Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel.
  • 1652_ca_object_representations_media_136_original.jpg

    Oral history interview with Mabel Hampton. Mabel tells stories of different women she dated and how she met Lillian Foster, who would be her partner from 1932-1978. She also talks about friends and jobs she had in her youth.
  • 12774_ca_object_representations_media_36_original.jpg

    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel describes running away from home and the New Jersey family who cared for her, while they sought Mabel's family. Mabel falsified her personal information in order to avoid reuniting with her abusive uncle in New York. Mabel speaks of her early 20s, her interaction within the underground gay and lesbian community. She begins explaining her 1923 arrest at Bedford Hills Prison and how she was setup by her friend's husband for prostitution. Side A = 9:38 minutes
  • 28245_ca_object_representations_media_62_original.jpg

    Oral History interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses her early life in South Carolina and New York.

Collection Tree