Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dear Friend, Your Buddy Misses You

Denver the dog, Joan and Mabel, at Rocky Bound Pond, New Hampshire, 1970s, c. LHEF

Dancing in #13A,c. LHEF

Singing in New Jersey, 1970s, c.LHEF

At Rocky Bound Pond, 1970s, c.LHEF
Work night at the old Archives, c. 1980 with Irare, Linda, Morgan, Beth, Jan, Deb, Sam, Judith, Joan, c.LHEF

with Deborah and Rota Silverstrini-Pardo, 1970s, c.LHEF
at the First March on Washington for Gay Rights,c.LHEF

Mabel,Joan, Deborah, Judith, in the early days of LHA at #13A, c.1977, c.LHEF
At a rainy Gay Pride March, NYC, 1984 where Ms. Hampton gave her speech, "All My People" c. LHEF

"My Buddy"
(written by Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson)

Life is a book that we study
Some of its leaves bring a sigh
Tshere it was written by a buddy
That we must part, you and I

Nights are long since you went away
I think of you all through the day
My buddy, my buddy
Nobody quite so true

Miss your voice, the touch of your hand
Just long to know that you understand
My buddy, my buddy
Your buddy misses you

For all those who were lucky enough to hear Ms Hampton sing these words and for all those who find wonder in this story 

Please use this post as a jumping back point for "'I Lift My Eyes to the Hill': The Life of Mabel Hampton" (1902-October 1989) and for a visit to the Lesbian Herstory Archives

"'I Lift My Eyes to the Hill: The Life of Mabel Hampton," 1902-October 26, 1989: An Introduction

Ms Hampton, and her beloved dog, Liberation, doing archives work at #13A, c.1977

What precedes this introduction in 7 installments is a recreated version of the talk I gave in 1992 on the life of my friend and icon to the New York lesbian community, Mabel Hampton, who died in October 26, 1989. When I was told that I would be the recipient of the first David Kessler Award for Life-Time Achievement early in 1992, I was overwhelmed by the honor and the responsibility of the public talk I was expected to give under the auspices of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I could speak about anything, but I knew that what I wanted to do was another kind of lesbian history, one that highlighted the  material realities, the cultural  richness and the social struggles of a working class lesbian woman. Discovering and preserving these histories so often overlooked in our infatuation with the Paris circles and the ruling elites was always at the heart of my dedication to the work of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. This intellectual focus came second to my inability to accept the loss of Ms. Mabel Hampton, a woman whom I had known almost my whole life up to her death, a woman who along with her partner or wife as Ms. Hampton called her, Ms. Lillian Foster, had passed their judgement on my first lesbian passion, Carol, as we sat around tables at one of the fabled gay balls held in the Bronx in the early 1960s. The talk was a presumptuous one in some ways. Using Ms Hampton's papers that had been left to the archives, the oral history tapes I had made with Ms Hampton over the years and the photographs we had taken of our shared activities, I set out to, in a little over an hour, recreate the main themes of Ms. Hampton's life as an African-American lesbian woman born at the beginning of the twentieth century in the deep South. The evening became with a singing of the African-American national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is what Ms Hampton would have expected and then I delivered the talk, "'I Lift My Eyes to the Hill': The Life of Mabel Hampton as Told by a White Woman" with a large framed image of Ms Hampton on the stage with me. When the words were over, a screen was lowered and the slides I had made of the material documents of Ms Hampton's life, along with her bequeathed photographs and those I and others had taken of Ms Hampton in the last years of her life when she was very active in the lesbian and gay community poured into the packed room, all set to a tape of appropriate music created by Paula Grant, a friend of Ms Hampton's and of the archives. Thus into the room came the voices of Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Marion Anderson, Paul Robeson, Nina Simone and Ms Hampton herself. I do not know how to share that music with you, but I have tried to share all the rest, now almost 20 years later. This is a work in progress so I will be adding more images as the weeks go by. In typing in the old text and ordering the images, I realized that many histories were being touched on--the history of the archives in its first home, apartment #13A at 215 West 92 Street, the site of our dinners, our adventures, our mutual care- taking; the history of Arisa Reed, a young woman, a "daughter" of the archives as we called the young women who spent long days in 13A, whom we could not save from her own despair; the history of the archive family with Ms Hampton often at its center, and primarily, the history of this indomitable woman whose voice still rings in my ears--"I would rather go for drive then eat when I'm hungry," "It was terrible, Joan, just terrible," "Oh, she was a good lookin' girl!" "What do you mean, when did I come out, I was never in!" and in the deepest of ways, "If I give you my word I will be there, I will." And she always was.

I offer you this portrait of Ms Hampton and Ms Lillian Foster in honor of all who shared their journey--all who visited with Ms Hampton on the work days at the archives, all who marched with her down Fifth Avenue on Gay Pride Days, all who helped in her care, who arranged speaking moments for her, who became her good friend, all who knew she was their history. Here you will see images of  Deborah Edel, the supreme papa in Mabel's eyes, Morgan Gwenwald, Paula Grant, Georgia Brooks, Linda Levine, Ms. Hampton's new family in her later years and always to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, where you can visit with all the originals of the materials you will see in the preceding sections and so much more.

I know there are errors here and I will work to correct them. I know those words written 20 years ago are not always the best, and please remember, I had an hour to tell a life, but I offer it all to you, to do better, to do more, to keep lesbian history growing more complex and rich with the wonders of these lives.

James Weldon Johnson--author of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"; also known at the Black National Anthem

Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till not we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, forget Thee,
Shadowed beneath thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Ms Mabel Hampton, c. 1920s

Friday, October 28, 2011

"I Lift My Eyes to the Hill: The Life of Mabel Hampton" (1902-October 26, 1989) Part 7

Georgia Brooks, Arisa Reed and Mabel Hampton, LHA at #13a, c. late 70s, c.LHEF

In our history of Ms. Hampton, we are now entering the so-called conforming 1950s, when white, middle-class heterosexual women, we have been told, are running in droves to be married and keep the perfect home. Reflecting another vision, Ms. Hampton carefully cuts out and saves newspaper articles on the pioneer transsexual Christine Jorgensen. From 1948 until her retirement in 1972, Ms. Hampton will work in the Housekeeping Division of Jacobi Hospital, where she earns for herself the nickname "Captain" from some of the women she works with, who keep in touch with Ms. Hampton until their deaths many years later. Here she meets Ms. Jorgensen and pays nightly visits to her hospital room.

From Ms. Hampton's saved documents: Daily News Article, December 1, 1952:  "Ex-GI Becomes Blond Beauty," contains a letter written by Jorgensen explaining to her parents why there is so much consternation about her case. She concludes, "It is more a problem of social taboos and the desire not to speak of the subject because it deals with the great hush, hush, namely sex." 

Ms. Hampton begins the decade earning $1, 006 for a year's work and ends it earning $1,232. Because of lack of money, Ms. Hampton was never able to travel to all the places in the world that fascinated her, but in this decade she adds hundreds of pages of stamps to her overflowing albums, little squares of color from Morocco and Zanzibar, from the Philippines to Mexico.

Throughout her remaining years, Ms. Hampton will continue with her eyes on the hilltop and her feet on a very earthly pavement. She will always have very little money and will always be generous. In the 1970s, Ms. Hampton discovers senior citizen centers and "has a ball," as she liked to say, on their subsidized trips to Atlantic City.[Throughout her later years, Ms. Hampton stayed at #13A and delighted in disappearing for days at a time on jaunts to this New Jersey casino- world on the sea.]

Lillian Foster and Mabel Hampton on Hudson
River Boat Trip with their Lesbian Community, c. 1971
Ms. Hampton in her Eastern Star dress with LHA's image of Ms. Lillian Foster in the background, c. 1980

While Ms. Hampton and Ms. Foster had been living with us at 215, Ms. Foster had showed the first signs of heart failure, that sadly claimed her life in 1978.

Lillian Foster in her Bronx home, 1977

After almost drifting away in mourning, Ms. Hampton found new energy and a loving family in New York's lesbian and gay communities. She will have friendly visitors from SAGE and devoted friends like Ann Allen Shockley, who never fails to visit Ms. Hampton when she is in town.

Ms Hampton's telephone book
Ms Hampton with SAGE friends, 1984

Ms. Hampton will march in Washington in the first National lesbian and gay civil rights march. She will appear in films like Silent Pioneers and  Before Stonewall.  Through the mid-80s, Ms. Hampton attended several all women festivals and camps, such as Sisterspace, loving the women's bodies all around her and met with many members of lesbian and gay organizations and marches in the yearly NYC gay pride demonstration. In 1987, she accompanies  Deborah Edel and her partner, Teddy Minucci, to California, her first airplane trip, so she can be honored at the West Coast Old Lesbians Conference.

 Reading Azalea, a journal of African-American lesbian writings, 1980

Drumming with Amazon Autumn women, c. 1980s

With Lee Hudson doing home repairs, c. 1980s

Marching, 1979

She will eventually have to give up her fourth-floor walk up Bronx apartment and move in with Lee Hudson and myself, who along with many others will care for her as she loses physical strength.

Outside #13A, 1988

The directions of care for volunteers who shared Ms. Hampton's care in her last days, 1989

On October 26, 1989, after a second stroke, Ms. Hampton will finally let go of a life she loved so dearly.
Ms. Hampton never relented in her struggle to live a fully integrated life, a life marked by the integrity of her self-authorship. "If I give you my word, she always said, "I'll be there," and she was.

On her death, her sisters in Electa Chapter 10 of the Eastern Star Organization honored her with the following words: We wish to express our gratitude for having known Sister Hampton all these years. She became a member many years ago and went from the bottom to the top of the ladder. She has served us in many capacities. We loved her dearly. May she rest with the angels."

c. 1980

Class and race are not synonymous with problems, with deprivation. They can be sources of great joy and communal strength. Class and race, in this society, however, are manipulated markers of privilege and power. Ms. Hampton had a vision of what life should be; it was a grand, generous vision, filled with good friends and good food, a warm home, her Saturday afternoon opera broadcast from the Metropolitan, and Lillian by her side. She gave all she could to doing the best she could. The sorrow is in the fact that she and so many others have had to work so hard for such basic human territory.

"I wish you knew what it's like to be me" is the challenge posed by a society divided by race and class. We have so much to learn about one another's victories, the sweetnesses as well as the losses. By expanding our models for what makes a life lesbian or what is a lesbian moment in history, we will become clearer about contemporary political and social coalitions that must be forged to ensure all our liberations.

A communal dinner at #13A with Deborah Edel, Ms. Hampton, Arisa Reed, Batya, and Mary, c. 1980 

We are just beginning to understand how social constructs shape lesbian and gay lives. We will have to change our questions and our language of inquiry to take our knowledge deeper. Class and race, always said together as if they meant the same thing, may each call forth their own story. The insights we gain will anchor our other discussions in the realities of individual lives, reminding us that bread and roses, material survival and cultural identity, are the starting points of so many of our histories.

In that spirit, I will always remember our Friday night dinners at the archives in #13A, sometimes with a life size portrait of Gertrude Stein propped up at one end of the table; Ms. Hampton sitting across from Lee Hudson, my partner then, a midwesterner; Denver, the family dog, right at Ms. Hampton's elbow, and myself, looking past the candelight to my two dear friends, Lee and Mabel--all of us carrying different histories, joined by our love and need of each other and of a more just world.

Ms. Hampton's speech at the 1984 New York City Gay Pride Rally:

Ms. Hampton, #13A, 1979

Ms Hampton. still marching, with Terry and and Nancy, NYC, c. 1981

Ms Hampton in the hands and hearts of new generations

"'I lift My Eyes to the Hill': The Life of Mabel Hampton" (1902-October 26, 1989) Part 6--the 1940s, Continued

Arisa Reed and Mabel Hampton, Ms. Hampton's Bronx home, 1970s

On March 29, 1944 Ms. Hampton attends the National Negro Opera Company's performance of La Traviata. This group believed in opera for the masses and included in its program a congratulatory message from the Upper West Side Communist Party. On its board sat Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McCloud Bethune, both part of another moment in lesbian history. In 1952, this same company will present Ouanga, an opera based on the life of of the first king of Haiti, Dessaline, who the program says "successfully conquered Napoleon's armies in 1802 and won the black Republic's fight for freedom." Ms. Hampton will be in the audience.

Continuing her dedication to finding the roses amid the struggle, on November 12, 1944, Ms. Hampton will hear Marion Anderson sing at Carnegie Hall and add the program of this event to her collection of newspaper articles about the career of this valiant and supremely talented performer.

Ms. Hampton's never-ending pursuit of work often caused long absences from home, and Ms. Foster was often left waiting for her partner to return to their Bronx apartment on 169th Street, the apartment they had moved into in 1945, at the war's end, and which would remain their shared home until Ms. Foster's death in 1978.

Dear Mabel,
Received your letter and was very glad to hear from you and to know that you are well and happy. This leaves me feeling better than I have since you left. Everything is OK at home. Only I miss you so much, I will be glad when this time is up. There is nobody like you to me. I am writing this on my lunch hour. It is 11PM, I am quitting tomorrow. I don't see anyone as I haven't been feeling too well. Well, the 1/2 hour is up. Nite nite be good and will see you soon.
                                                                    Little Bear

Ms. Foster telling Ms Hampton of her fall, needing her home

In 1948, Ms. Hampton falls ill and cannot work. She applies for home relief and is awarded a grant of $54.95 a month, which the agency stipulates should be spent the following way: $27 for food; $21 for rent; 55cents for cooking fuel; 80cents for electricity; $6 for clothing and for personal incidentals, she is allotted $1. From these meager funds she still manages to give comfort to friends.

Postcard, August 9, 1948:
Dear Miss Lillian and Mabel:
The flowers you sent were beautiful and I liked them very much. I wear the heart you sent all the time. It was very nice to hear from you. I am feeling fine now. I hope you are both in the best of health.
                                                                   Love, Doris

In 1949, Ms. Hampton writes to the Home Relief Agency telling the caseworker to stop all payments because she has the promise of a job.

The decade that began in a war between nations and peoples ends in Ms. Hampton's version of history with a carefully preserved article about the international figure, Josephine Baker.

Cut out of the March 12, 1949 issue of the The Pittsburgh Courier are the following words:
Well friends, fellow Negros and countrymen, you can stop all that guesswork and surmising about Josephine Baker. This writer knew Edith Spencer, Lottie Gee, Florence Mills, knew them well. He has also known most of the other colored women artists of the last thirty years. His word to you is that this Josephine Baker eminently belongs. She is not a common music hall entertainer. She has been over here for a long time, maybe 25 years. The little old colored gal from back home is a French lady now.

Josephine Baker performing in Nigeria, c.1950s
That means something. It means for a colored person that you have been accepted into a new and glamorous and free world where color does not count. It means that in the joy of the new living you just might forget that 'old oaken bucket' so full of bitter quaffs for you. It means that once you have found some solid footing in the new land of freedom, you might tax  your mind to blot out all the sorry past, all the old associations, to become an alien in spirit as well as in fact. It please me folks to be able to report to you that none of this has possessed Josephine. I tested her and she rang true. What she does is for you and me. She said so out of her own mouth. Her eyes glistened as she expostulated and described in vivid, charged phrases the aim and purpose of her work. She was proud when I told her of Lena and and of Hilda [Simms]. 'You girls are blazing trails for the races,' I commented. 'Indeed so,' she quickly retorted. After she had talked at length of what it means to be a Negro and of her hope that whatever she did might reflect credit on Negros, particularly the Negros of her land of birth, I chanced a leading question. 'So you're a race woman,' I queried. I was not sure she would understand. But she did. 'Of course I am,' she replied. Yes, all the world's a stage and Josephine comes out upon it for you and me."

In my own work, I have tried to focus on the complex interaction between oppression and resistance, aware of the dangers of romanticizing losses while at the same time aggrandizing small victories, but I am still awed by how a single human spirit refuses the messages of self-hatred and out of bits and pieces weaves a garment grand enough for the soul's and the body's passions. Ms. Hampton prized her memories of Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, creating for herself a nurturing family of defiant African American women and men. Her lesbian self was part of what was fed by their soaring voices. When The New York Times closed its obituary on Ms. Hampton with the words, "There are no know survivors," it showed its ignorance of how an oppressed people make legacies out of memory and out of those collected moments, bring a collective history into being.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"'I Lift My Eyes to the Hill': The Life of Mabel Hampton" 1902-October 1989: Part 5--the 1940s

A 1940s Wall Plaque from the Bronx Home of Mabel and Lillian

Ms. Hampton's War Effort

The 1940s were turbulent years, marked by World War II and unrest at home. While African-American soldiers were fighting the armies of racial supremacists in Europe, their families were fighting the armies of racial dictates of Jim Crow society at home. Harlem, Detroit, and other American cities would see streets become battle fields.

For African-American working women like Ms. Hampton, the 1940s was the decade of the slave markets, the daily gathering of Black women on the street corners of Brooklyn and the Bronx to sell their domestic services to white women who drove by looking for cheap labour.  In 1940, Ms. Hampton was part of this labor force as she had been for over twenty years, working year after year without worker's compensation, health benefits or pension payments.

In September of 1940, she receives a postcard canceling her employment with one family: "Dear Mabel, please do not come on Thursday. I will see you again on Friday at Mrs. Garfinkels. I have engaged a part time worker as I need more frequent help as you know. Come over to see us."

Ms. Hampton, however, did not let her working difficulties dampen her enthusiasm for her cultural heroes, however. On October 6, 1940, she and Lillian are in the audience at Carnegie Hall when at 8:30, Paul Robeson commands the stage. The announcement for this concert is the first document we have reflecting Ms. Hampton's lifelong love of the opera and her dedication to African-American cultural figures and institutions such as Marian Anderson and Josephine Baker.

In 1941, perhaps in recognition of her perilous situation as day worker, Ms. Hampton secures the job of matron with the Hammarlund Manufactoring Company on West 34th Street, assuring her entrance into the new social security system begun just six years earlier by Franklin Roosevelt,

She still takes irregular night and day domestic employment so she and Ms. Foster can, among other things, on May 28, 1946, purchase from the American Mending Machine Company one Singer Electric Sewing machine with console table fort he price of $100. She leaves a $44 deposit and carefully preserves all records of the transaction.

On February 20, 1942, we have the first evidence of Ms. Hampton's involvement in the country's war efforts: a ditto sheet of instructions from the American Women's Voluntary Services addressed to all air raid wardens. "During the German attack on the countries of Europe, the telephone was often used for sabotage thereby causing panic and loss of life by erroneous orders. We in New York are particularly vulnerable to in this respect since our great apartment houses have often hundreds even thousands under one roof...The apartment house telephone warden must keep lines clear in time of emergency. Type of person required: this sort of work should be particularly suited for women whose common sense and reliability could be depended upon." Ms Hampton was such a person.

In August. Ms. Hampton is working hard for the Harlem Branch of the New York Defense Recreation Committee, trying to collect cigarettes and other refreshments for the soldiers and sailors who frequent Harlem's USO. In December of 1942, she is appointed deputy sector commander in the air warden service by Mayor La Guardia. This same year she will also receive her American Theater Wing Service membership card. Throughout t1943, she serves as her community's air raid warden and attends monthly meetings of the 12th Division of the American Women's Voluntary Services Organizations on West 116th Street. During all this time, her country will maintain a segregated army abroad and a segregated society at home.

In January and February of 1944, she receives her fourth and fifth war loan citation. This support for causes she believed in, no matter how small her income, continues throughout Ms. Hampton's life. In addition to her religious causes, for example, she will send monthly donations to SCLC and the Martin Luther King Memorial Fund; by the end of the seventies, she is adding gay organizations to her list.