Mabel Hampton was an African-American lesbian activist, a dancer during the Harlem Renaissance, a founding member of the Lesbian Herstory Archive and a philanthropist for both black and LGBT organisations.
Hampton was born in 1902 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was brought up by her grandmother following the death of her mother at the age of 2. At the age of 7 she moved to New York City to live with her aunt and uncle but after being raped by her uncle, she fled to New Jersey where she was taken in by a white family. As a teenager, Hampton found work as a dancer in an all-women’s dance troupe on Coney Island, New York and in the 1920’s she became a part of the Harlem Renaissance and earned her living dancing in all all-black acts and performing with stars like Gladys Bentley and befriending prominent members of the Renaissance like Jackie “Moms” Mabley. During this time, Hampton came out as a lesbian and had a number of relationships with women.
In 1924, Hampton met Lillian Foster and the two became an item until the latter’s death in 1978. Together they lived through WWII – during which she volunteered for the New York Defense Recreation Committee and performed the role of community’s air raid service warden in 1943 – the Civil Rights era and the Stonewall Rebellion. Hampton had left the chorus line when the era of the Harlem Renaissance ended and gained employment as a cleaner. The daughter of one of these families, Joan Nestle would later found the Lesbian Herstory Archives. Nestle would later ask Hampton to become a founding member. Hampton donated a huge collection of lesbian pulp fiction novels to the archive, and worked alongside volunteers to amass a huge collection of lesbian memorabilia, ephemera, letters, and other records. Hampton continued to keep up the active social life she had grown accustomed to during the Harlem Renaissance, and was increasingly involved in LGBT activities, she worked for SAGE, an organisation which advocated for LGBT rights and developed support systems for elderly members of the LGBT community. Hampton also donated to LGBT organisations and the Martin Luther King Memorial Fund despite her low income.
Hampton participated in every gay pride march held during her lifetime and in 1984 spoke at the New York City pride parade stating that “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.” The following year, she was named the grand Marshall of the New York City Gay Pride March. In the same year, Hampton was awarded with a lifetime achievement award by the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. She died in 1989, leaving behind an archive of information that provides an insight into the lives of black women and lesbians during the Harlem Renaissance.