What a life this Black butch queer Harlemite elder led!
Her father took off before her birth and her mother died when Mabel was two months old. She lived in North Carolina with her grandmother until she died when Mabel was seven. She was put on a train to New York and lived in Harlem with her aunt and a minister uncle, who raped her.
Soon, the eight-year-old ran away and walked the Harlem streets. A woman gave her a nickel and she rode the train to Jersey City. A woman who thought she could find Mabel’s family took her in. Mabel provided sketchy information, and so lived with this Black family until she was 17. (The family’s last name was White, so some sources misclaim that the family was white.) That’s when she started working as a dancer at Coney Island and learned about “the life” from a woman in the revue.
Now in Harlem, Mabel began dance work. But in 1920 she was arrested outside of a party. Why? Because an unescorted woman leaving a bar or party could be charged with prostitution.
She went before New York’s first female judge, Jean Norris, who was infamous for being harsh on Black women and sex workers. Mabel was sentenced to three years and sent to Bedford Hills prison, where she met many lesbians.
Released early for good behavior, she was told to stay out of New York City. She didn’t, and had to serve the rest of her sentence. Upon release, she performed in Harlem (Garden of Joy, Lafayette Theatre) but her heart wasn’t in it, due to the racism and misogyny she encountered. She then began cleaning white women’s houses.
Meanwhile, Mabel was hanging with Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, and Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who threw wild parties. Nothing matched A’Lelia Walker’s “salons” though, where a butler ushered her into the ballroom, where large pillows lined the walls and short tables bore fruits and wines. Naked women came by offering things to eat, and men laid with women, women with women, men with men.
Prohibition’s end stopped the wild times and the Depression cut deeply. For Black working-class women without WWII jobs, there was only domestic work. In fact, the ’40s were called the decade of the Bronx Slave Market, when Black women stood on Brooklyn and Bronx street corners while white women drove by on the lookout for cheap labor (two decades later Mabel began working as a janitor at Jacobi Hospital).
But no story of Mabel could possibly be complete without accounts of her wife, Lillian Foster. Mabel recalls when they met in “Not Just Passing Through,” a 1994 documentary:
I was going downtown, and she … was standing on the corner. So I said, ‘Oh that’s a cute little woman.’ I see the streetcar coming, and it was full. She says, ‘You wanna get on there?’ I says, ‘Yeah.’
She says, ‘Well come on.’ So, she jumped up, pushing … people out the way, and me, I jumped up there, and I looked her over.
She says, ‘You live by yourself?’
I says, ‘Yeah.’
So she says, ‘You married?’
I said, ‘No, I’m not … I don’t like men that well. Why should I marry?’
That’s that. So she came to the house for dinner. Had a couple of my friends there, they’d all been married for quite a [while]. I was single, they said, ‘Mable, you don’t do nothing but run around with women, why don’t you settle down?’
I said, ‘Well maybe I will.’
Documentary interviewer: ‘How long before you … ?’
‘Oh, didn’t take too long, just about two weeks. I didn’t want to rush it. Yes, for 46 years, she stayed all night. And she stayed with me until 1978, when she passed away.’
Lillian recalled in 1976, “Forty-four years ago I met Mabel. We was a wonderful pair. I’ll never forget it … I met her in 1932, September 22. And we haven’t been separated since in our whole life.”
They referred to each other as “husband and wife.” They proudly marched together in the first National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979.
They lived at 639 East 169th Street, Bronx from 1943 until Lillian’s death in 1978. Mabel stayed on until1988. There’s a marker for “The Mabel Hampton and Lillian Foster Residence.”
In Mabel’s 1984 address to New York’s Pride, she affirmed, “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 for all my people to be free in this country and all over the world, my gay people and my Black people.”
In 1985, she was Grand Marshal of the New York Pride March.