overview

Mabel Hampton was an African-American performer during the Harlem Renaissance and, in the 1970s and ‘80s, a key member of the Lesbian Herstory Archives.

An icon of the New York lesbian community, Hampton lived in this apartment building with her partner Lillian Foster from 1943 to 1978 (Foster’s death), and on her own until about 1988.

Header Photo

Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

On the Map

 
Photo Above

Mabel Hampton, 1922. Source: Joan Nestle, "Don't Stop Talking 2" blog.

History

African-American LGBT rights activist Mabel Hampton (1902-1989) was a singer and dancer during the Harlem Renaissance and a domestic and hospital worker for much of her working life. She lived openly as a lesbian.

From about 1923 to 1932, she lived in a Harlem apartment at 120 West 122nd Street (demolished), where she and her neighbors hosted parties for their lesbian friends. Hampton also performed at Harlem’s Garden of Joy nightclub and the Lafayette Theater (both demolished), and socialized with the likes of stars Ethel Waters, Gladys Bentley, and Alberta Hunter.

In 1932, Hampton met Lillian Foster. They lived in several Harlem apartments before moving to a fourth-floor apartment at 639 East 169th Street in the Bronx in 1943. During their 46-year relationship – ended only by Foster’s death in 1978 – they referred to each other as husband and wife.

From 1948 until her retirement in 1972, Hampton worked at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. In 1952, she briefly served as a domestic worker in the childhood home of Joan Nestle. This began an important friendship that would later see Hampton become a central figure at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, co-founded by Nestle in her Upper West Side apartment in 1974. In addition to greeting visitors and other activities, Hampton donated her large collection of lesbian pulp fiction novels in 1976 and held the Archives banner in many pride marches.

“I have been a lesbian all my life, for eighty-two years, and I am proud of myself and my people. I would like all my people to be free in this world, my gay people and my black people.”
Mabel Hampton, NYC Gay Pride Rally, 1984

Hampton continued to live in her Bronx apartment until about 1988, though she also stayed at Nestle’s apartment. In roughly the last ten years of her life, Hampton recorded several oral histories with Nestle for the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which provide invaluable insight into African-American lesbian life in 20th-century New York.