Mabel Hampton (1902-1989) was an activist who was instrumental in founding the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). Her life story and her donations of time, archival material, and money to the LHA have made Mabel Hampton a Lesbian icon, but she was also an activist for the rights of African Americans, women, and the entire LGBTQ community.
Asked by an interviewer about when she came out of the closet, Hampton responded, “What do you mean? I was never in!”
The first years of life for Mabel Hampton were marked by loss, instability, and violence, yet her history shows unusual resilience and resolve. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Mabel was an infant when her mother died and she was given over to the care of her grandmother. The grandmother died when Mabel was seven. She was sent to New York City to live with an aunt and uncle. Within a year, however, the uncle sexually assaulted her, and the eight-year-old child walked out. Hampton’s own words describe a little girl who would not bow to her fate:
My aunt went out one day and he raped me. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to leave here.’ … So this day, I got tired of that. I went out with nothing on but a dress, a jumper dress, and I walked and walked.
That same day, she was found at a playground by Bessie White, who took her in and refused to return her to the abusive home. Mabel lived in the White household until she was 17, when Bessie too passed away.
High Times, Hard Times, Community Service
Once on her own, young Hampton was falsely accused of prostitution, and she served a two-year sentence in Bedford Hills Reformatory. She was put back in jail after a neighbor told the authorities that Hampton was attending women’s parties in New York City. Upon her second release, Hampton continued to live in the company of women who love women and worked as a dancer in Coney Island for a women’s troupe. In the 1920s, she joined the exuberance of the Harlem Renaissance, danced in the chorus line in all-Black stage productions at the Garden of Joy nightclub, and eventually became an actress at the Cherry Lane Theater. When the Great Depression hit and the Harlem Renaissance came to an end, Hampton took work as a cleaning woman. She was asked many years later by an interviewer about this career choice, and her answer was, “I like to eat.”
Through the years, Hampton served the interests of her community. Early on she set aside time — and money from her meager earnings — to benefit the nascent African American civil rights movement. She volunteered during World War II for the New York Defense Recreation Committee, from which she diverted refreshments and cigarettes for Black soldiers at the Harlem USO. She also volunteered as an air raid service warden, watching at night to ensure that her neighbors’ blackout curtains kept stray rays of light from escaping lest the enemy target them.
In 1932, Hampton met Lillian Foster. “And Lillian of course, Lillian was my wife,” she said about her beloved, eschewing the label “domestic partner.” They were together for forty-six years (Lillian died in 1978). “There is nobody like you to me,” wrote Lillian to Mabel when Mabel was away from home in what seemed to be a perpetual search for employment. As a couple, they would go out as “Mabel and Lillian Hampton.”
Lesbian Herstory Archives
In 1974, Hampton helped found the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York. LHA is a grassroots institution supported by a non-hierarchical women’s collective, available to all Lesbians, and located within a communal setting. The small circle of women who formed the Archives include Lesbian activist and writer Joan Nestle, who grew up in one of the families whose homes Mabel had cleaned. Nestle related the following story told to her by Mabel. The night that Joan’s mother Regina learned that Joan might be a Lesbian, Regina called Mabel and threatened to kill herself if this were true. Mabel said: “I told her, she might as well go ahead and do it because it wasn’t her business what her daughter did and besides, I’m one and it suits me just fine.” The LHA is home to Mabel Hampton’s papers and personal library.
In later life, “Miss Mabel” (as her friends and admirers called her) donated to the Martin Luther King Memorial Fund and LGBTQ organizations. In 1979, she marched in the first National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. She also appeared in two documentaries chronicling Gay history: Before Stonewall (1984) and Silent Pioneers (1985). Photographs and her oral history are also included in the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ four-part documentary, Not Just Passing Through.
In 1985, Hampton was Grand Marshal of the New York City Lesbian and Gay Pride March. The year before, she had spoken to the crowd gathered for the annual march:
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 Hampton’s long life of love and service ended on October 26, 1989, due to pneumonia.
Aptheker, Bettina. Tapestries of Life: Women’s Work, Women’s Consciousness,
and the Meaning of Daily Experience. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1989.
Carmichael, James Vinson. 1998. Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay
Library History. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.
Nestle, Joan. A Fragile Union: New and Selected Writings. San Francisco: Cleis, 1998.