Black Lesbian Archives to document, share the story of black gay women for generations to come.
Ask lesbian activist Patricia McCombs whether she saw women who lived, loved, and most importantly, looked like her growing up pre-Stonewall, and her answer is swift and firm.
“Never,” said McCombs, a Chicago woman who, decades later, would play an unexpected role in changing that pattern. Her work as a party promoter and vocal lesbian rights activist earned her a spot in the Black Lesbian Archives, an Atlanta-based historical preservation project looking to document and share the story of black gay women for generations to come.
Comprised of nearly 1,000 scrapbooks, audio files, videos, poems, newsletters and photos, the exhibit is an effort of Krü Maekdo, who this month kicks off a 30-stop traveling tour. Her goal: highlighting the existence of what many consider a marginalized community within a marginalized community.
The tour kicks off in Atlanta, and will include a Feb. 23 showing at Charis Books and More. It will wrap up this July in Chicago, where Maekdo got her archiving start.
What she’s discovered so far ranges from the everyday to the exceptional. There are magazines detailing regional black club life, and screenshots from popular underground movies. Black-lesbian-authored books and newspaper clippings, flyers, and copious pictures of black women of all ages living out and proud.
The latter is particularly important to Maekdo, a history buff who noticed that while plenty of organizations have documented LGBTQ history, relatively few celebrate women of color.
“I was like where the hell are we at?” said Maekdo, whose argument that retelling of LGBTQ history is dominated by white men is not a new one. “I was digging because I wanted to know more of who am I, where did I come from?”
Part of the challenge of documenting LGBTQ history lies in the historical stigma, explained Wil Brant, director of Chicago’s Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. The archive has worked closely with Maekdo.
Brant said many pre-Stonewall men and women wouldn’t keep records that would affiliate themselves with any sort of LGBTQ movement. When they died, what few keepsakes they had often got destroyed by well-meaning family and friends, he said.
“A lot of history has been lost,” Brant said. “That’s an important part of what Kru is doing. Kind of bringing it out into the open.”
Maekdo faces unique challenges in documenting a demographic that is often reticent to share private keepsakes. One need only look to the well-publicized story of Henrietta Lacks, a black Maryland woman whose pilfered cancer cells fueled decades of medical research, to understand some of the reticence. Lacks’ family continued to fight for compensation in 2018, nearly 70 years after her death, according to The Washington Post.
“When it comes to these institutions, there’s a certain level of trust we do not have, and I can understand why,” Maekdo said. “We were always put on the bottom.”
But when communities don’t share their story, that story often doesn’t get told – a trend McCombs wants to help stop. Her own history as an advocate against discriminatory nightclub practices is documented in the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame. She’s worked with Maekdo to share photos and anecdotes she hopes can spread her story beyond the Midwest.
“It’s important for us to have the history of our LGBTQ community because it’s not exhibited ordinarily,” she said. “And there are a lot of people who did different things in order to pave the way for us to have a better life.”
Soliciting contributions face to face and talking about the archives at community events are just a few ways Maekdo is trying to break the ice. She’s also going beyond the traditional museum model and incorporating everyday people into decisions about what goes into the archives and how it is presented.
“I want this to be moreso a process that we as a community come up with,” she said.
At present, the Black Lesbian Archives is truly a grassroots effort; the bulk of the collection is on trifolds Maekdo dutifully transports around the country in her car.
She hopes to get a bus for the mobile collection and establish a brick-and-mortar homebase for it in Oakland this year. She’s also soliciting donations and even selling handmade jewelry to raise some of the $20,000 it will take to create a proper digital database for the archives.
Maekdo ultimately wants the archives to become as large and invaluable as collections like the New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archives. For now, however, she’s satisfied playing even a small role in helping black women connect with their history.
“You look back in the past and you’re like, now I can understand who I am in the present,” she said. “That’s what Black Lesbian Archives is, connectivity.”