Mabel Hampton Oral History
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, her maternal grandmother raised Mabel, 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, her uncle, a minister, raped Mabel. She ran away to New Jersey, buying a bus ticket purchased with a nickel given to her by a woman on the street. Luckily, a family that cared for her for the next several years took in Mabel.
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.