Pride History Month: Mabel Hampton

June 27, 2019
Pride History Month: Mabel Hampton

By Jaquira Truesdale

Known as an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, devoted collector of African-American literature and Harlem Renaissance dancer, Mabel Hampton overcame some of the biggest obstacles in her life. Her contributions gave people a clear glimpse of what it was like to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community in the 20th Century. 

Mabel Hampton was born on May 2, 1902, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her family life was unstable from a young age. Her mother passed away when she was just a toddler and a few years later, her grandmother passed away as well.

Following her grandmother’s death, Hampton moved in with her aunt in Greenwich Village to live with her aunt when she was 7 years old. However, she ran away to New Jersey after she was sexually abused by her uncle and lived with a new family until she was 17.

Struggling to make ends meet, she often looked for work. Her life was headed in a different direction, however, when she was accused of prostituting and sent to Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women.

When she was released, she started dancing for all-black, LGBTQ+ clubs such as The Garden of Joy nightclub. She gained prominence for her performances during the Harlem Renaissance. Her experience as a dancer in the NYC limelight allowed Hampton to get in touch with her sexuality and connect with the LGBTQ+ community.

Lillian (pictured left) and Mabel (pictured right)

In 1932, she met her partner Lillian Foster. At the time, the Great Depression left Hampton jobless. Unable to work in clubs, she became a cleaning lady and domestic worker. At the time, she worked for Joan Nestle, an openly Lesbian Jewish woman. Curious about the LGBTQ+ community, Nestle often relied on Hampton for answers. Over the course of time, their friendship flourished.

Hampton lived in the Bronx with her partner for several years. They were forced to moved after a house fire destroyed all their possessions. Nestle offered her home to the couple. Hampton, a lover of African-African and LGBTQ+ literature, collected many books and memorabilia. In 1974, Hampton became one of the founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, alongside Joan Nestle, and donated her collection of Lesbian pulp fiction book to the archives.

Hampton's home, which was also the Headquarters of the Lesbian Herstory Archives (Photo Credit: NYU)

For the rest of Mabel’s life, she was an avid and vital element to the Gay Rights Movement, often appearing in marches with a Lesbian Herstory Archives banner in hand. Although she was a part of the working class, Hampton always donated money towards different LGBTQ+ organizations. 

In 1979, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. A few years later, she was named Grand Marshal of the New York City Gay Pride March.

After all of her wonderful achievements, Joan Nestle started recording oral histories of Mabel’s life which provided in depth details of her challenging childhood, her relationships, her struggles with racism and identity of being a Lesbian around that time.

On October 26, 1989, Mabel Hampton passed away at the age of 87. However, her life and legacy is immortalized and forever honored in the Lesbian Herstory Archives. 

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