Lesbian activist and archivist
Known fondly as Miss Mabel during her later years, Mabel Hampton (1902-1989) was truly “in the life.” A major contributor of her time and personal materials to The Lesbian Herstory Archives, she witnessed and helped document gay and black life during the 20th century, from the Harlem Renaissance to her own 25-year relationship with partner Lillian Foster.
Hailing from Winston-Salem, NC, Hampton moved to New York in the 1920s to become a dancer and singer, and found a home in the Harlem Renaissance scene alongside queer black icon Langston Hughes and bisexual blues singer Bessie Smith. She was sent to a women’s reformatory for 13 months for prostitution in the early 1920s, but spoke openly about the kindness she received from other women there:
“[Another prisoner] says, ‘I like you.’ ‘I like you too,’ [I reply]… We went to bed and she took me in her bed and held me in her arms and I went to sleep. She put her arms around me like Ellen used to do, you know, and I went to sleep.”
In 1932, she met Foster (right) and the two remained a couple until Foster’s death in 1978.
Throughout the years, Hampton squirreled away hundreds of letters, photos and other items that chronicled African-American and gay life and history, including her own. She became a prolific philanthropist, volunteer and a piece of living history, appearing in the 1980s documentaries, Silent Pioneers and Before Stonewall. In one of many oral histories she recorded before her death in 1989, Hampton mused:
“I’m glad I became [a lesbian]. I have nothing to regret. Not a thing. All these people run around going, ‘I’m not this, I’m not that.’ [Being gay] doesn’t bother me. If I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing. I’d be a lesbian. Oh boy, I would really be one, then! I’d really be one! Oh boy!”
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Photos: Joan Nestle/The Lesbian Herstory Archives.