Lesbian Herstory Archives AudioVisual Collections

Mabel Hampton Oral History Collection, 1976-1989


Mabel Hampton Oral History Collection, 1976-1989


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

  • Mabel Hampton Oral History Transcripts Cover.pdf

    A two-volume transcript of several tapes in the Mabel Hampton Oral History collection. In addition to tape transcriptions, the volumes include notes and other annotations by Joan Nestle and Sara Atatimur. The final pages of volume two also include Joan Nestle's article "I Lift My Eyes to the Hill: The Life of Mabel Hampton as Told by a White Woman;" Mabel Hampton's obituary in the New York Times; and a draft of Joan Nestle's article "Her Spirit Soars Above Us."
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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."
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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).
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    Mabel describes her 1923 arrest (at age 18) and term at Bedford Hills Prison, and the period shortly thereafter.
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    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.
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    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Side A: Mabel discusses Coney Island, and her relationships with women, including Mildred Mitchell.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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
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    Oral History interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses her early life in South Carolina and New York.
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    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses "slumming party" where she first met A'Lelia Walker, and what it was like being gay during the 1930s.
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    Oral History interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses the language and culture of being gay in her time.
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    Interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses her life with Lillian Foster, the lesbian movement, and performing and singing.
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    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses lesbian marriage in the 1930s and 1940s, including stories of women getting married and where the ceremonies were. She tells stories about women she knew who had husbands and families, jealousy among women, and passion. She talks about her own experiences with passion and jealousy, including her crushes and relationships. She discusses her first relationship with a white woman, women she had crushes on, women she felt threatened by, her relationship with Lillian, and an experience at a "party house" in Bedford Hills. At the end of the tape there is a discussion about Lillian's tombstone and what to put on it.
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    Oral History interview of Mabel Hampton. Conversations between Joan and Mabel about a book Mabel enjoyed, working at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a documentary film in the making, and Mabel's early life and sexuality.
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    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel describes her early childhood and rural upbringing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She details her journey from Winston-Salem to New York City to live with her aunt. Mabel continues her story with her development into a young lesbian woman and the issues concerning lesbianism in the North versus the South. She speaks about her lifestyle and her no-regrets stance on her life. Her connection with her childhood is vivid and candid and is described in detail.
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    Oral History interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel describes her early childhood and rural upbringing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the early 1900s. Notable facts include her mother's death (possibly by poisoning) not long after Mabel's birth, and that Mabel was very small (perhaps premature) at birth. Mabel also discusses a range of subjects including a description of and anecdotes about her early caretaker, life on a farm/agricultural setting, and memories of going to church.
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    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses meeting her partner Lillian Foster in 1932, whom she was with for 40 years until her passing in 1979. Mabel also mentions highlights of her professional career including performing at the "World's Fair" (New York, 1939?), Carnegie Hall and Coney Island. Mabel also recounts a story involving an incident with a classmate in her youth. The tape finishes with a rendition of "My Buddy", sung by an unidentified vocalist and pianist
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    Oral history interview with Mabel Hampton. Side A: Mabel discusses relationships she had with married women. She also discusses what she wore at the time [when she was in her early 20s] and about her feelings about the openness of lesbians today. Side B: Mabel sings two songs- "My Buddy" and "Come to Me".
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    Oral history interview of Mabel Hampton. Side A: Mabel tells the story of her arrival in New Jersey, and how she found the people who first took her there. Side B: Mabel sings the American popular song, "My Buddy", and also explains how she left her uncle in New York and went to New Jersey. She talks in detail about the first couple days that she spent in a home in Jersey City, and her reticence to discuss details about her origins with the people that took her in. Additional discussion includes a description of the first time she was kissed by a woman, and why she didn't pursue relationships with married women.
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    Oral history interview for Feminary: A Lesbian-Feminist Journal for the South. Joan Nestle interviews Mabel Hampton at 77. Mabel describes her childhood in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, her train journey to New York City, the city vs. the country, meeting lesbians and her views on race, sisterhood and the fight for lesbian rights.
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    Oral History interview dated . Side A: Mabel talks about the parties she attended, the atmosphere, the people she met and the music she listened to. She also speaks in detail about romantic relationships with specific women and her first love from Coney Island. Her love of classical music is also discussed, which began when she started her first job.
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    Oral history recording of Joan Nestle. Side A: Joan Nestle speaks about lesbian self-expression and the importance of language to identity. She goes on to talk about her early life and how she was motivated to take a stand against the oppression she saw around her in society, specifically oppression against women and lesbians. Side B: Mabel Hampton takes over as the main speaker and recounts her life story, beginning when she was only one month old. Mabel discusses her early years, including the crucial transition from living with her grandmother to living with her aunt, and how she eventually decided to run away to Jersey City.
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    Audio cassette. Oral History Interview of Mabel Hampton. Mabel discusses her first girlfriend, a white woman she met while working at a girl's school. She also discusses her three year relationship with a married woman she worked for as a domestic worker, whom she considers her first love. In addition, she discusses her life as a dancer and her trips to a private lesbian club, frequented by notable women. She then relates how she was briefly abducted, attacked and robbed, and how she escaped and how her friends sought revenge on her attackers.

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