Mabel Hampton worked tirelessly as an advocate for LGBT communities throughout her lifetime. As an African-American woman who identified as a lesbian, she was a force during the gay rights movements and even attended every pride march during her lifetime. She is remembered as a performer, storyteller, activist, philanthropist, and all-around badass.
Mabel was born in 1902 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She lost her mother when she was only two months old due to poisoning. She was then raised by a grandmother who passed when she was only seven. In 1909, she was sent to live with family in New York City. Tragically, Mabel ran away the same year due to overall poor treatment and sexual assault at the hands of her uncle. This is just so much for a person to endure in the first seven years of life.She traveled alone by Subway and was taken in by a New Jersey family until the age of 17.
Mabel landed on her feet by working as a dancer in an all women’s troupe. She danced her way through the 1920s as part of all-Black productions during the Harlem Renaissance which was a cultural epicenter of Black ideas, literature, and the arts. The era gave Mabel the opportunity to meet other dancers, artists, and LGBT entertainers. It was during this time that she first learned of the word “lesbian” and experienced her first love affair with another woman. She had fooled around with other women before that time, but never knew there was a word for her desires. She performed at the Lafayette Theater, danced at the Garden of Joy, and was friends with numerous queer Black women entertainers .
In 1924, Mabel and a friend were arrested for prostitution after being set up by the police. The judge who sentenced her was eventually removed for being heavily biased against Black women and sex workers, but not before she could send Mabel to the Bedford Hills Reformatory for Women for three years. While incarcerated, she met more queer women and was considered a model prisoner. She was so well-liked by the administration there that they interceded on her behalf when future employees underpaid her.
After her time at Bedford Hills, she decided to leave the chorus lines. Dancing was not her passion and she was tired of being grabbed by male customers. She was also quoted as explaining her departure with “I like to eat.”
To earn a living, Mabel began working as a housekeeper for white families in New York City. While waiting at a bus stop in 1932, she met a woman who was “dressed like a duchess.” That woman was Lillian B. Foster, and they fell in love.They were inseparable until Foster’s death in 1978.
Mabel and Lillian in the 1940s:
Mabel marched with the first National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, and spoke before thousands as the Grand Marshall in the 1984 march in New York City. There she stated, “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.”
Mabel’s life was recorded and documented by Joan Nestle, the daughter of a family for whom Mabel had worked. Joan went on to establish the Lesbian Herstory Archives. You can find more pictures of Mabel on their website. Mabel collected memorabilia, records, letters, and other vital pieces of history related to the lives of Black women and lesbians living in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance. She and Lillian donated their personal papers and recorded oral histories for the LHA so that the stories of queer women in New York City would be forever remembered. Mabel passed away in 1989 at the age of 87. What an incredible legacy.
Themstory: Mabel Hampton, Black Lesbian New York Entertainer
Not Just Passing Through
Mabel Hampton Residence