Columnists » Mickey Weems

The New Black, Part II: Mabel and Bayard

by Mickey Weems
Wednesday Apr 15, 2009

(Co-written with David Parker)

If Gay is the New Black- as some civil rights activists have observed- it's important for Gay people to acknowledge those African Americans who paved the way for Gays and Blacks.

Here are two important Americans whose life stories reflect real power and grace under pressure. Rather than allowing themselves to be torn apart by competing bigotries, Mabel Hampton and Bayard Rustin acted as sutures; binding and healing the self-inflicted wounds of our nation.

Mabel Hampton (1902-1989)

When asked when she came out of the closet, Mabel Hampton responded, "What do you mean? I was never in!"

The first years of life for Mabel Hampton were marked by instability and tragedy. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she was only 2 months old when her mother died. At the age of 7, her life shifted once more when her grandmother, who cared for her after her mother died, also passed away. She was sent to New York City to live with her aunt and uncle, but ran away from home within a year when raped by her uncle, an incident that led to another shift.

Her own words about that terrible day describe a little girl who refused to simply 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.'"

From 8 to 17 years of age, Hampton stayed with a family who took her in when the mother, Bessie White, found her at a playground that same day her uncle raped her. Bessie refused to send her back, and kept Mabel safe as much as she could until she too passed away.

During her late teens, Mabel was falsely accused of prostitution and served a 2-year sentence in Bedford Hills Reformatory where she found comfort in the arms of other women. It was yearning for that same comfort that caused her to serve out her entire sentence when she had been granted early release- she got busted when a neighbor snitched on her for attending parties in NYC.

When finally released for good, so to speak, Hampton continued to live "in the life" in the company of women who love women. She worked as a dancer in Coney Island for an all-women's troupe, then made her way to Harlem in the 1920s where she joined the chorus lines in all-Black stage productions at the Garden of Joy nightclub, and became an actress in the Cherry Lane Theater.

The Harlem Renaissance that gave her employment and exposure to some of the biggest names in entertainment declined, and the Great Depression hit the nation. Hampton then took on work as a cleaning woman. When asked about her career choice, Mabel said, "I like to eat."

Hampton may indeed have loved to eat, but she also loved justice. She set aside time and money as an activist for African American civil rights as well as volunteering in 1943 for the New York Defense Recreation Committee, where she gathered refreshments and cigarettes for American soldiers at the Harlem USO during World War II. She also functioned as air raid service warden for her community.

In 1932, she met Lillian Foster. "And Lillian of course, Lillian was my wife," Mabel said about her beloved, eschewing the label "domestic partner" that was en vogue during the years when the interview took place, after Lillian had passed away in 1978.

They were together until Lillian's death. "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."

Later in her life, Miss Mabel (as her friends and admirers called her) would contribute to the Martin Luther King Memorial Fund and to LGBTQ organizations. She marched in the first National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, no doubt inspired by the same determination that inspired her to take that first fateful walk at the age of 8.

In 1974, Hampton helped found the Lesbian Herstory Archives that is currently in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The Archives is a grassroots collection supported by a non-hierarchical women's collective, available for all Lesbians and housed within a communal, not an academic, setting in a 4-story limestone townhouse.

The small circle of women who originally made this project possible included Joan Nestle, the daughter in one of the families whose homes Mabel had cleaned. Nestle reports the following story told to her by Mabel. When Joan's mother Regina found out Joan might be a Lesbian, she called Mabel late that night and threatened to kill herself if it were true.

Mabel's response? "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 Lesbian Herstory Archives include Mabel's personal library; a collection of material spanning her adult life in New York. Mabel's memorabilia have been invaluable in helping Queer historians understand the rich culture in which African American Lesbians lived, loved, and struggled for their rights during a large part of the twentieth century. Mabel appeared in 2 documentaries chronicling Gay history: Silent Pioneers and Before Stonewall. Photographs and her oral history are also included the documentary Not Just Passing Through. On October 26, 1989, Mabel Hampton died of pneumonia.

In 1985, Hampton was the grand marshal of the New York City Lesbian and Gay Pride March. The year before, she spoke to the crowd gathered for that same 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."

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)

Baynard Rustin was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania and raised in a Quaker household by his grandparents, who entertained such luminaries as James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois in their home. Bayard studied at a number of colleges on music scholarships because of his fine tenor voice, ending up at City College of New York. At the age of 25, he trained with the American Friends Service Committee to become an activist, and worked to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African American men who were falsely accused of raping two White women. Like other politically committed men of the era, he joined the Communist party.

In 1939, Rustin sang in John Henry, a musical starring Paul Robeson and blues singer Josh White. Rustin joined White's band, Josh White and His Carolinians, and performed at Greenwich Village's Caf? Society nightclub. In 1941, he left the Communist party and joined the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization dedicated to the work of Gandhi.

When Rustin received his induction notice in 1943, he informed his draft board that, as a conscientious objector, he would not submit to the draft and sent back his registration and classification cards. That earned him a twenty-eight month imprisonment in a number of federal prisons, during which time he was identified as a "notorious offender" for refusing to accept either segregation or celibacy during his confinement.

In 1947, Rustin participated in bus rides with members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation to test Morgan v. Virginia, a Supreme Court Decision that outlawed segregation in interstate travel. The following year, he went to Europe on a lecture tour and then to a world conference of pacifists in India; on his return, he was arrested for his participation in the 1947 bus rides and jailed in North Carolina, where he was put on a chain gang.

In 1952, Rustin spent several months in Africa, working with the independence movements in Nigeria and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). In January 1953, he was arrested in Pasadena, California, for "lewd vagrancy"- in other words, cruising. This ended his affiliation with the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

After several weeks in jail, Rustin returned to New York, where he worked with the War Resisters League, a group of independent secular radical men, several of whom were also Gay. Late in 1955, Rustin joined a group of New York activists calling itself "In Friendship," which was led by A. Philip Randolph, the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the largest African American union at the time.

When Martin Luther King, Jr.'s house was bombed during the bus boycott, the group sent Rustin south to bring Gandhi's nonviolent political philosophy to the civil rights movement. King agreed with his teachings, but kept Rustin under wraps as much as he could. Participation of a former Communist, conscientious objector, and Gay man like Rustin could be used to discredit the movement. Nevertheless, Rustin helped King found the Southern Christian leadership Conference in 1957, and organized a rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

This rally turned out to be a rehearsal for the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin was sent to Birmingham to promote the march to the SCLC staff. Again, his background posed a problem. But A. Philip Randolph, the official director of the event, appointed Rustin his deputy. Rustin organized the march in eight weeks, bringing 200,000 people into Washington D.C. and providing a stage for King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Rustin disappeared from the pacifist movement and, while he opposed escalation of the war in Vietnam, he criticized the antiwar movement's flirtation with Communists. He also found the new militancy of the civil rights movement, by now in its Black Power phase, repellent. Although his public profile was higher than ever in 1969, Rustin had lost credibility in the Black community.

During the 1970s, Rustin continued to work on issues like voter registration and with organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP. He worked through organizations like Freedom House and the International Rescue Committee to dramatize the plight of refugees of war, particularly in Southeast Asia. In 1977, he met Walter Naegle, a twenty-seven year old who became his lover. Naegle helped him renew his ties to the War Resisters League, and one of the last acts of Rustin's public life was lobbying Edward Koch and the New York City Council to add sexual orientation to the city's human rights code. Rustin died of a heart attack August 24, 1987.

Since his death, Rustin has been reclaimed as an icon for LGBTQ people, but he has yet to be given his due by society at large. During the opening ceremonies for the inauguration of Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial on January 18, 2009 that referred time and again to King's speech and included (for the first time) openly-Gay participants, there was no public acknowledgment of Rustin outside of LGBTQ blogs, demonstrating the necessity of restoring Rustin to his rightful place in the history of the twentieth century.

A year before he died, Rustin said, "Twenty-five, thirty years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were Black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves Gay, homosexual, Lesbian."

Dr. Mickey Weems is a folklorist, anthropologist and scholar of religion/sexuality studies. He has just published The Fierce Tribe, a book combining intellectual insight about Circuit parties with pictures of Circuit hotties. Mickey and his husband Kevin Mason are coordinators for Qualia, a not-for-profit conference and festival dedicated to Gay folklife. Dr. Weems may be reached at [email protected]


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