African Americans who are part of LGBTQ+ history have made enormous achievements and contributions to global history and culture. From literature and the performing arts to religion, politics, and activism, members of black gay communities have changed the way the world thinks about democracy and what it means to be an American.
The LGBTQ+ objects and archival collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture focus on the familiar, untold, and unknown stories that have shaped the nation’s past. With the goal of promoting greater understanding of LGBTQ+ identities and contributions, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is exploring new ways of helping visitors reinterpret artifacts and the lives of people who have changed the course of history.
Dedicated to being a resource for dialog and shared knowledge, the Museum collects, preserves, and provides access to objects that reveal the significant histories of LGBTQ+ communities. We’ve created this online portal to give greater access to stories we want to share with the world.
Welcome to the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s LGBTQ+ collection online.
SEARCHING ONLINE RECORDS
To find artifacts related to LGBTQ+ histories and themes throughout our collection, we recommend the following:
- To explore objects directly related to LGBTQ+ communities and histories, search using the term LGBTQ+
- To explore objects related to diverse representations of sexual orientation and sexuality, search using the term SEXUALITY
- To explore objects related to issues of gender and gender representation, search using the term GENDER
- To explore objects related to identities in general, search using the term IDENTITY
In June 2019, Dr. Ron Simmons donated a collection of objects from his personal archives, including several hundred color slides, most of which are related to American Politics, Literature, and LGBTQ activism. In addition to being an early LGBTQ activist, going back to the 1970s, Dr. Simmons taught communications at Howard University. He also photographed the iconic poster image of Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill for the film Tongues Untied. For a quarter of a century, Simmons worked for Us Helping US, a not-for-profit organization “dedicated to reducing HIV rates among black gay and bi men and pursuing a holistic approach to treating those who are HIV-positive.”
The collection is currently undergoing processing, but a selection of slides are available for viewing here: The Ron Simmons Photography Collection
LGBTQ+ INDIVIDUALS AND ORGANIZATIONS
The NMAAHC collection holds objects relating to individuals and organizations representing diverse LGBTQ+ identities and communities. The list below contains a selection of such individuals from within our online collection. This list will continue to expand as we add more materials online. Click on a name to learn more about the person and explore related objects.
Alvin Ailey (1931-1989) was an African American choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Ailey School in New York City. As a teen, he studied with renowned dancer, choreographer, and teacher Lester Horton. After three years of performing and training with Lester Horton Dancers, he was positioned as a choreographer and later became the director of the company when Lester Horton suddenly died in 1953. Equipped with his preeminent training and influence from Horton, Ailey decided to open his own dance company. He established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) in 1958. He also created ballets for other notable companies including the American Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet, London Festival Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, and Paris Opera Ballet among many others. As common practice at the time, Ailey maintained a closeted persona regarding his sexuality but would utilize his art as an outlet for it. His choreographed ballets for AAADT exhibited imagery reminiscent with male and female homosexuality such as juxtaposing same-sex partnering with religious and hypermasculine archetypes. Such examples include AAADT performances of Quintet (1968), Streams (1970), Flowers (1971), and The Mooche (1975). Ailey succumbed to AIDS-related complications on December 1, 1989, at the age of 58. Among his many accolades, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Ailey the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014, the highest civilian honor, in recognition of his contributions and commitments to civil rights and dance in America.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was an American dancer, singer, actress, and civil rights activist who found fame as an expatriate in Europe. She was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri to a washerwoman and vaudeville performer. Having experienced the horrors of the East St. Louis riots in 1917, Baker begin to embrace her talents as a way out of discrimination and poverty. Baker began performing in vaudeville showcases around the country when she was offered a chance to perform in Paris in the La Revue Nègre. Once the Revue closed, Baker was given her own show and from there her career skyrocketed. She was the first African American woman to star in a motion picture, to perform with an integrated cast at the American concert hall, and one of the first African American entertainers who achieved acclaim both in movies and on the stage. During World War II, Baker performed for integrated audiences of French and American troops. She also served as a member the French Resistance forces and smuggled messages in her lyrics that were sent back to France from opposing forces. She received the Croix de Guerre for her efforts. Baker later returned to America to take part in the Civil Rights Movement. She was the only female speaker at the March on Washington in 1968, where she honored women civil rights activists. Modern biographies and interviews with her son have explored Baker’s sexuality and found that she had relationships with both men and women throughout her lifetime. After taking some time away from entertainment to raise her “Rainbow Tribe,” Baker returned to the stage in a series of concerts at the famous Bobino Theater in Paris. After a triumphant show and late-night dancing with celebrities, Baker slipped into a coma while asleep and passed away on April 12, 1975, at age 68.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a writer and civil rights activist who is best known for his semi-autobiographical novels and plays that center on race, politics, and sexuality. Feeling stifled creatively because of the racial discrimination in America, Baldwin traveled to Europe to create what were later acclaimed as masterpieces to the American literature canon. While living in Paris, Baldwin was able to separate himself from American segregated society and better write about his experience in the culture that was prevalent in America. Baldwin took part in the Civil Rights Movement becoming close friends with Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, and Lorraine Hansberry. The deaths of many of these friends influenced his novels and plays and writing about race relations in America. Baldwin’s works helped to raise public awareness of racial and sexual oppression. His honest portrayal of his personal experiences in a national context challenged America to uphold the values it promised on equality and justice. He explored these topics in such works as Go Tell It on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, The Fire Next Time, Giovanni’s Room, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Another Country. Baldwin firmly believed sexuality was fluid and should not be divided into strict categories, an idea that would not be acceptable until modern day. Through his popularity and writings produced at home and abroad, Baldwin contributed as an agent of change to the artistic and intellectual traditions in American society. Baldwin remained an outspoken observer of race relations in American culture. He would branch out into other forms of creative expression, writing poetry and screenplays, including treatments for the Autobiography of Malcolm X that later inspired Spike Lee’s feature film, Malcolm X. He also spent years as a college professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hampshire College. Baldwin died at this home in St. Paul de Vence, France, on December 1, 1987, of stomach cancer at age 63. Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House was the subject of the critically acclaimed 2016 Raoul Peck film, I Am Not Your Negro.
Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) was an American blues pianist, singer, performer, and drag king pioneer. Born in Philadelphia, she moved to New York City at the age of 16 and began her career as a performer at Harry Hansberry's Clam House on 133rd Street, one of the city's most notorious gay speakeasies. In the early 1930s, she headlined at Harlem's Ubangi Club, where she was backed up by a chorus line of drag queens. She dressed in men's clothes (including a signature tuxedo and top hat), played piano, and sang her own raunchy lyrics to popular tunes of the day in a deep, growling voice while flirting with women in the audience. Bentley was openly lesbian early in her career, but during the McCarthy Era in the 1950s, she started wearing dresses and married (within five months of meeting) Charles Roberts, age 28, a cook, in a civil ceremony in Santa Barbara, California, in 1952. Roberts later denied that they had ever married. Bentley also studied to be a minister, claiming to have been "cured" by taking female hormones. In an effort to describe her supposed "cure" for homosexuality she wrote an essay, "I Am a Woman Again," for Ebony magazine in which she stated she had undergone an operation, which "helped change her life again.” She died of pneumonia in 1960, aged 52.
Jason Paul Collins (b. 1978) is a retired American professional basketball player who played 13 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Collins played as a center for Stanford University where he also played as the NCAA All-American basketball team for the 2000-2001 season. He was selected by the Houston Rockets as the 18th overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft. Collins spent his career with various NBA teams including the New Jersey Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and Brooklyn Nets. After the 2012-2013 season concluded, Collins came out publicly as a gay man in a feature article for Sports Illustrated magazine. He became a free agent and did not play again until February 2014, when he signed with the Nets and became the first openly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues. Considered a “game-changer” for his admission, he was named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2014.
Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was one of the leading African American poets of his time. He was associated with the generation of Black poets of the Harlem Renaissance. After finishing college at New York University and beginning a master’s degree at Harvard, Cullen published his first volume of poetry titled Color. During the next four years, Cullen published his own poems and edited poetry by other African Americans. In 1928, he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship to write poetry in France. In 1932, Cullen published his only novel, One Way To Heaven, a social comedy of the disparity between lower-class African Americans and the elite of New York City. Although focusing on racial ideas and discrimination, he was never considered radical and was often criticized by the African American community for being too “safe.” Countee Cullen was very secretive about his life. Most of his friends, including Alain Locke, Harold Jackman, Carl Van Vechten, and Leland Pettit were openly gay. It was later confirmed by his first wife that the reason for their divorce was because Cullen was sexually attracted to men. Cullen’s poetry is often taught in the context of queer culture today.
Angela Davis (b. 1944) is an American political activist, professor, and author who was an active member in the Communist Party and the Black Panther Party. Her interests included prisoner rights; she founded Critical Resistance, an organization working to abolish the prison-industrial complex. She is most famous for her involvement with the Soledad brothers, who were accused of killing a prison guard. During George Jackson’s trial in August 1970, an escape attempt was made at gunpoint and several people were killed. Davis was accused of taking part in the event and was charged with murder. Evidence showed that the guns were registered to her and rumors said she was in love with Jackson, which later proved untrue. Davis went into hiding and was placed on the FBI’s most wanted list. She spent eighteen months in jail, which led to the “Free Angela Davis” campaign and the Angela Davis Legal Defense Committee. In response, John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote “Angela” and the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel.” In 1997, she came out as a lesbian during an interview with Out magazine. Since then, she has continued to tackle oppression faced by the black community, women, and the LGBTQ community. After spending time traveling and lecturing, Davis returned to teaching. She served as a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she taught courses on the history of consciousness. Davis is the author of several books including Women, Race, and Class (1983) and Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003).
Peter Davy (1940-1990) was a fashion designer, dressmaker and stylist. He born in Kingstown in the St. Vincent and Grenadines Island. He began his fashion career designing clothes for his sisters but by his teens, he moved to Trinidad and began designing grand dresses for the participants in the annual Carnival festivals. Attaining several accolades for his designs, he decided to go to New York for a new audience for his talents. Davy showcased his talents in several fashion shows around the city all the while meeting several movers and shakers in the fashion industry. He reportedly worked as a designer for four decades until his untimely demised from AIDS-related complications in 1990. Davy’s designs were collected by Lois Alexander Lane, founder of the Black Fashion Museum (BFM) and Harlem Institute of Fashion. Davy’s designs were exhibited and written about extensively throughout the BFM history (1979-2007). NMAAHC acquired the BFM collection and archives in 2007.
André De Shields (b. 1946) is an actor, director, choreographer, and educator. His body of work includes Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, feature films, television, distinguished visiting professorships, and motivational speaking. His most famous works on Broadway include, Warp!, Play On!, Ain’t Misbehavin’, the original production of The Wiz, and most recently Hadestown. In 1984, De Shields wrote, choreographed, directed, and starred in André De Shields’ Haarlem Nocturne, a Broadway musical revue featuring standards from the American songbook, pop hits from the early 1960s, and De Shields' own songs. De Shields received several accolades during his career as a performer including an Emmy Award for his work in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and a Tony Award for his work in Hadestown. As an educator, De Shields has served as adjunct and distinguished visiting professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study teaching Shakespeare: Gender and Diversity and designing the Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. De Shields has always been open about his homosexuality. He often faced racism and discrimination because of his sexual orientation but it never stopped him from performing.
Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) was an artist whose paintings largely consisted of portraits, modernist interiors, and street scenes executed in impasto with broad areas of vibrant colors. Delaney became invested in the art scene with an interest in poetry and jazz, which led to his friendships with writers James Baldwin and Henry Miller, and other artists, including Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and Al Hirschfeld. While in New York, he was a member of the Harlem Artists Guild, but was more connected to the Greenwich Village art community. Delaney became part of the gay bohemian culture in the Village, but he was never comfortable with his sexuality and often hid it from his other friends in Harlem fearing that his friends would be repelled by his homosexuality. In 1953, Beauford Delaney left New York and settled in Paris, France. Away from America, Delaney felt more distanced from the racial and sexual biases prevalent in American society. His works often focused on the Great Depression and the racial discrimination that led African Americans to be considered social outcasts. Delaney believed that as an African American, he faced enough discrimination and his fear of people knowing his sexuality led to his isolated and extremely private life.
Samuel R. Delaney Jr. (b. 1942) is an American author, professor, and literary critic. Delaney began writing at the young age of thirteen when he completed his first novel. In 1968, he published Dalgren, which became his best-known work. His writings include over 25 novels, many in the science fiction genre, as well as memoirs, criticism, and essays on sexuality and society. He has been awarded four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, and has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Three of his memoirs focus on his homosexuality and this theme in American culture. His first memoir, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village won the Hugo Award. The work focuses on his experiences as a gay man in the African American community as well as his open marriage. His second memoir, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, describes the changes in social and sexual interaction in Times Square from the 1960’s through to the 1990’s. Delany’s third autobiography, Bread and Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York, is a graphic novel about his own life as a gay science-fiction writer meeting a homeless man who becomes his partner. Delany currently lives in Philadelphia with his partner, Dennis Rickett. His openness to his experiences with homosexuality changed the way homosexuality was viewed in American culture. He has taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, SUNY Buffalo, and is currently the Director of the creative writing graduate program at Temple University.
Sharon Camille Farmer (b. 1951) was the first African American woman to be hired as a White House photographer and first female to be Director of the White House Photography office. Born and raised Washington, D.C., Farmer attended Ohio State University and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in photography. After graduating, Farmer began a career as a freelance photographer. She worked for the Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She documented news stories, political campaigns, cultural events, conferences, and portraits. Farmer also lectured extensively on photography and served on the faculty at American University, Mount Vernon College, and Indiana University. In 1993, Farmer traveled the world as a White House photographer for President Bill Clinton and first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Among the many famous images she captured was the handshake between the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat and President and Mrs. Clinton witnessing the launch of the space shuttle Discovery with astronaut John Glenn. In 2004, she was the campaign photographer for Senator John Kerry’s presidential election campaign. Farmer has also presented her work in exhibition at museums and cultural institutions nationwide, including: Art against AIDS, Gospel in the Projects, Twenty Years on the Mall, Washington, D.C. - Beijing Exchange, and Our Views of Struggle.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) a playwright, writer, and activist was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1930. Hansberry was the daughter of a real estate entrepreneur, Carl Hansberry, and school teacher, Nannie Hansberry, as well as the niece of Pan-Africanist scholar and college professor Leo Hansberry. Her own family’s landmark court case against discriminatory real estate covenants in Chicago would serve as inspiration for her seminal Broadway play, A Raisin in the Sun. Raisin, her best-known work, would eventually become a highly lauded film starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, and Diana Sands. Hansberry originally wanted to be an artist when she attended the University Wisconsin but soon change her focus to study drama and stage design. After two years, she left college for New York to serve as a writer and editor of Paul Robeson’s left-wing newspaper Freedom. Hansberry, an outspoken Communist, was committed to racial equity and participated in civil rights demonstrations. It was at one of these demonstrations that Hansberry met her husband and closest friend, Robert Nemiroff. Despite her being married, Hansberry secretly affirmed her homosexuality in various correspondence and her short stories later discovered in archives. She continued to write plays, short stories, and articles in addition to delivering speeches regarding race relations in the United States. She became close friends with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. It was with those friends and Nemiroff that she kept a secret about the pancreatic cancer that would eventually take her life on January 12, 1965, at age 34. Simone penned the song “Young, Gifted and Black” in tribute to her good friend.
Essex Hemphill (1957-1995) was one of the most celebrated, black, openly gay performance poets of his generation. While Hemphill was recognized in LGBTQ communities across the country, few people know that Hemphill had a global reputation. Hemphill’s first collections of poems were self-published books, including Earth Life (1985) and Conditions (1986). His first full-length collection, Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (1992), won the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award. Additionally, Hemphill’s work is included in the anthologies Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (1986) and Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS (1993). Hemphill also edited the acclaimed anthology Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men (1991), which won the Lambda Literary Award in 1992. In 1983, Hemphill was a member of the performance poetry group Cinque with Wayson Jones and Larry Duckette. Their work was later featured in the documentaries Tongues Untied. He died on November 4, 1995, of AIDS-related complications.
Nona Hendryx (b. 1944) is an American singer, record producer, songwriter, musician, author, and actress. Born and raised in New Jersey, she is most notably known for her work as a solo artist as well as for being one-third of the music trio Labelle. She began her music career as a member of girl groups the Del-Capris and later the Bluebelles, singing ballads, classics, and standards. After a few personnel changes, the Bluebelles, consisting of Hendryx, Patti Labelle, Sarah Dash, and Cindy Birdsong (later a member of The Supremes) recorded its debut single, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” in 1962 for Newtown Records. Birdsong left to join The Supremes in 1967, and the group faced an identity crisis as the girl group image and sound they had developed started to lose momentum while new sounds in rock & roll and funk gained popularity. After being dropped from Atlantic and losing their longtime manager in 1970, the group began a major transformation. Under the tutelage of music producer Vicki Wickham, Labelle abandoned the typical girl group aesthetic and created an updated version of their R&B sound that incorporated rock, soul, funk, and gospel. After multiple world tours and albums, Labelle disbanded in 1977. As a solo artist, Hendryx’s artistry bloomed as a singer-songwriter where she forayed into hard rock, new wave, and new age. Labelle triumphantly reunited on stage at the world-famous Apollo Theater in 2008 and subsequently released an album and participated in a nationwide tour. Hendryx also forged a path as an activist and became a founding member of The Black Rock Coalition and participated in the Artists United Against Apartheid project with the song Sun City. Hendryx, who identifies as bisexual, has served as a fierce gay rights activist in recent years in raising awareness of discrimination towards the LGBTQ community.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an American jazz singer, songwriter, actress, and an icon in American culture. She brought a new type of singing to the stage that would soon take over the music scene. Holiday was part of the vibrant Harlem Renaissance scene, performing in nightclubs and jazz clubs. At only eighteen, she recorded her first record as part of a studio group led by Benny Goodman. Her career quickly grew as she recorded songs with Teddy Wilson and began a long partnership with Lester Young. In 1938, she was invited to headline an orchestra by Artie Shaw. Holiday became the first African American woman to work with an all-white band. One of her most famous songs, “Strange Fruit” was based on a horrific and detailed account of a lynching in the South. Many scholars now consider it one of the first protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Her autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues” became a top-seller focusing on her complicated and often difficult life. Throughout her life, Holiday faced many personal tragedies and became addicted to drugs. She served a prison sentence and reportedly had several dalliances with her fellow women prisoners. Holiday was open about her bisexuality despite not being socially acceptable at the time. After years of substance abuse, Holiday’s body had grown weary of the abuse and she died from heart failure on July 17, 1959, at age 44.
Langston Hughes (1901-1967) was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He was a significant figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was the descendant of enslaved African American women and white slave owners in Kentucky. He attended high school in Cleveland, where he wrote his first poetry, short stories, and dramatic plays. After a short time in New York, he spent the early 1920s traveling to West Africa and Europe, living in Paris and England. He returned to the United States in 1924 and to Harlem after graduating from Lincoln University in 1929. His first poem was published in 1921 in The Crisis and he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues in 1926. Hughes’s influential work focused on a racial consciousness devoid of hate. In 1926, he published what would be considered a manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance in The Nation: “The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.” Hughes penned novels, short stories, plays, operas, essays, works for children, and an autobiography. Hughes’s sexuality is debated by scholars, with some finding homosexual codes and unpublished poems to an alleged black male lover to indicate he was homosexual. His primary biographer, Arnold Rampersad, notes that Hughes exhibited a preference for African American men in his work and his life, but was likely asexual.
Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) was a lawyer, politician, and university professor from Houston, Texas. Jordan graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern University in 1956 and from Boston University Law School in 1959. Originally determined to practice law in Massachusetts, she instead returned to Texas and set up a small law firm while working as an administrative assistant for a county judge to make ends meet. Working as a volunteer for the Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his running mate, Texas senator Lyndon B. Johnson inspired Jordan to enter politics. She began her political career by winning a senate seat in the Texas House of Representatives in the Eleventh District; the first black state senator in Texas since 1883. A staunch advocate for social equity, she went on to be reelected for two more terms and eventually served as the first black woman in American history to preside over a legislative body when she was elected president pro tem of the Texas legislature in 1972. The following year, she was one of the two African American representatives elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was appointed to a coveted seat on the House Judiciary Committee. From 1973 to 1979, she became an outspoken member of Congress, taking part in landmark decisions such as the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, federal aid to public schools, legal aid for the poor, minimum wage, and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Jordan retired from politics in 1979 and became a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. She began to suffer from multiple sclerosis in 1973 and by 1992 she was confined to a wheelchair. Jordan was fiercely guarded about her private life but lived with her companion Nancy Earl for over twenty years. Despite speculation, neither Jordan or Earl addressed the nature of their relationship. Jordan died of complications due to pneumonia on January 17, 1996, in her home in Austin, Texas.
June Jordan (1936-2002) was a poet, activist, journalist, essayist, and teacher. Her work explored issues of race, gender identity, and immigration. Known as the “Poet of the People,” she professed a vision of liberation for all people. Jordan was the only child of Jamaican immigrant parents, born in Harlem in 1936 and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. She attended the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts, and in 1953 enrolled at Barnard College, where she would earn her B.A. She was married in 1955, and divorced after having one child. In addition to writing, Jordan was active in the civil rights, feminist, antiwar and gay and lesbian rights movements. She taught poetry workshops to children in Harlem as well as teaching at the City College of New York, Yale University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She directed the Poetry Center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and founded the influential poetry program Poetry for the People at University of California, Berkeley. In her writings, Jordan self-identified as bisexual. She passed away due to breast cancer at her home in Berkeley at the age of 65.
Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954) was a philosopher, writer, and educator born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a family of educators and distinguished civil servants. Locke, a sickly but bright child would excel academically throughout his elementary and secondary career. Locke became the first African American Rhodes Scholar after graduating with honors from Harvard University in 1907 (receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1918). He continued his studies in Europe at Hertford College in Oxford and the University of Berlin in Germany. As work was limited for African American scholars, he joined the faculty of Howard University in 1912, forming one of the first philosophy departments at a historically Black college. Creating think tanks, book and lecture series based in social science and race relations, he partnered with National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) to educate the masses. Such examples include the Bronze Booklets on the History, Problems, and Cultural Contributions of the Negro. The booklets became a standard reference for teaching African American history. Locke is best known as the creator of the philosophical concept New Negro which would initiate the Harlem Renaissance (1925-1939), a period of significant contributions of African American artists, writers, poets and musicians. In 1925, he exhibited this cultural movement aspecial edition of the social justice magazine Survey Graphic, followed bythe book, The New Negro: An Interpretation of Negro Life. Locke also organized traveling art exhibitions of African American artists and mentored many talented writers and poets including Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. Locke identified as gay among his friends and peers but never disclosed this information publicly. He also reportedly encouraged and supported African American LGBTQ artists and writers during the Harlem Renaissance. Locke retired from Howard University in 1953 and moved to New York City. After being in ill health for some time, Locke died from complications of heart disease on June 9, 1954, at age 69.
Audre Lorde (1934-1992) was a poet, essayist, librarian, feminist and equal rights activist. Of West Indian descent, she was born Audrey Geraldine Lorde in New York City to immigrants from Grenada. Considered an intelligent and precocious student, she began to write poetry in high school. After a poem she wrote was rejected for a class assignment, she submitted it to Seventeen magazine and it became her first professional publication. While taking classes at the National University of Mexico, she accepted her identity as a lesbian and poet. Returning to the U.S., she socialized at downtown working-class lesbian bars while keeping her sexual preference a secret during her classes at Hunter College. She graduated from Hunter in 1959 and attained her master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961. She worked as a librarian throughout the 1960s. She had two children with her husband, Edward Rollins, a white gay man, before they divorced in 1970. She met her long-time partner, Frances Clayton, in 1972. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Lorde published regularly in magazine and anthologies; she became active in the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movements. She published several books of poetry and books related to those subjects including Cables to Rage (1970), The Black Unicorn (1978), Sister Outsider (1984) and the fictionalized memoir she termed a “biomythography,” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982). She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977 and dealing with the prognosis and subsequent mastectomy, she felt isolated because there were no publications or coping models that related to be a Black and lesbian. She reflected on her condition in the book, The Cancer Journals (1980) that was awarded American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award in 1981. Six years after her breast cancer diagnosis, she was diagnosed with liver cancer to which she succumbed on November 17, 1992, at age 58.
Whitfield Lovell (b. 1959) is a contemporary artist known primarily for his drawings based on found images of African American individuals from the first half of the 20th century. Lovell was born in the Bronx, New York. His father's family was from Barbados and his mother was from the southern United States. Lovell attended the High School of Music and Art in New York. He later attended the Maryland Institute of Contemporary Art and Parsons School of Design before receiving a BFA from Cooper Union in 1981. Works by Lovell are featured in major museum collections including The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Brooklyn Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Seattle Art Museum. Lovell was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2007. He currently resides with his long-term partner, the artist Fred Wilson, in New York City. Lovell has often combined his portraits with found objects. In the series in the NMAAHC collection, each of his 54 keenly rendered charcoal portraits—both probing and elegant--is paired with one of 54 round playing cards (a deck of 52 plus two jokers).
Moms Mabley (1897-1975) was an American standup comedian and a pioneer of the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit" of African-American vaudeville. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, she joined the vaudeville circuit at 14 as a comedienne after a very difficult childhood. Later in life, she became known as “Moms” because of her mentoring and maternal attributes. Mabley became a regular performer at the Cotton Club and a headliner at the Apollo Theater, having the distinction as the first woman to perform there. She recorded multiple comedy albums and was often featured on variety shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Her persona on stage was that of an older woman wearing a housedress, floppy shoes, and knit cap. Her outfit choices were meant to be a commentary on racial perceptions and bigotry against African Americans. Much of her work was a social commentary communicated through social satire. Mabley’s jokes were often raunchy in nature, referring to her preference for younger men. This persona did not reflect her personal life, where she often dressed elegantly and glamorous and was openly known to be a lesbian. Offstage, she would wear clothes that were commonly worn by her fellow male performers. Mabley, the consummate satirist, also added singing to her repertoire. She had a hit with a cover version of “Abraham, Martin and John” in 1969. She also appeared in such feature films as The Emperor Jones (1933), Boarding House Blues (1948), and the Blaxploitation film, Amazing Grace (1974). Shortly after the release of Amazing Grace, Mabley died on May 23, 1975, at age 81.
Johnny Mathis (b. 1935) is a singer best known for jazz, Tin Pan Alley and Broadway standards, soft rock, and R&B music. Encouraged by his father, who had performed in vaudeville, Mathis began voice lessons at age 13. At 19, an agent for Columbia Record heard Mathis was performed at a small club in San Francisco; he was signed immediately. Called “the velvet voice,” Mathis became known for performing romantic ballads. Very popular with adult audiences, Mathis earned dozens of gold and platinum records. As his musical career progressed, he started to add showtunes, traditional favorites, and soft rock. One of his albums, released in 1958, a collection of his previous songs, held the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest presence on the Top 100. Mathis has sold over 360 million records worldwide, making him the third largest selling artist of the 20th century. Mathis received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 and had three different recordings inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Mathis inadvertently announced that he was gay in a 1982 interview with US Magazine that he believed to be off the record. He remained quiet on the subject for decades, citing both the death threats he received after the 1982 article and generational stigma. He confirmed he was gay in 2017 and has since been open about his sexuality and his coming out story.
Claude McKay (1889-1948) was a Jamaican American writer, poet, and seminal figure of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay produced works celebrating black life and culture, particularly peasant life in Jamaica, as well as works condemning racism and challenging white authority. Born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, to peasant farmers, McKay likely first encountered racism when he briefly apprenticed as a woodworker in Brown’s Town and worked as a constable in Kingston. Within a year, he returned to Sunny Ville and published the verse collections Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads in London in 1912. With award money from Songs of Jamaica, McKay financed a trip to the U.S., studying at the Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State College before making his way to New York City. As in Kingston, the racism he encountered in New York fueled his writing. In 1917, he produced “If We Must Die,” which defended black rights and urged resistance in response to the racist violence of the Red Summer. His 1921 work, Harlem Shadows, contained some of his most acclaimed poems, placing him at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance. McKay’s protestations did not just exist on the page; he was an activist and aligned to the tenets of Left Communism and Pan-Africanism as a means for African Americans to escape discrimination in the United States. He traveled extensively around Europe, the Soviet Union, and North Africa. During this time abroad, he produced novels focusing on the black individual’s struggle for cultural identity in a white society, including Home to Harlem, Banjo: A Story without a Plot, and Banana Bottom. Returning to Harlem in the mid-1930s, he produced the autobiographical work A Long Way from Home. McKay never publicly revealed his sexuality, but he pursued relationships with both men and women during his life. Researchers believe his correspondences with associated writers of the period confirm his bisexuality. McKay, suffering from various ailments at the end of his life, died from cardiac arrest on May 22, 1948, in Chicago.
Pauli Murray (1910-1985) was a writer, lawyer, minister and activist. She was born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore, Maryland. After her parents’ death, she spent her childhood in North Carolina and New York. After graduating from Hunter College in 1928, she shortened her name to Pauli to embrace a more androgynous identity. During the Great Depression, Murray worked for the Works Progress Administration and the Workers Defense League as well as a teaching for the New York City Remedial Reading project. She was arrested in 1940 for disorderly conduct on an interstate bus trip where she challenged the constitutionality of segregating bus passengers. This incident, coupled with her time working with the Workers Defense League, inspired her to attend law school at Howard University. While there, she participated in civil rights protests in an attempt to desegregate public facilities. She also joined with George Houser, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She graduated from Howard with honors and planned on completing a post-graduate fellowship at Harvard University. She was denied admission at Harvard because of her gender. She ultimately finished her post-graduate work at UC Berkeley School of Law. Soon after, she published States’ Laws on Race and Color, regarded as the “bible” of civil rights work. She went onto receive her J.S.D. from Yale University, the first African American to receive this degree. After several appointments at universities around the country, Murray decided to devote her life to her Christian beliefs. In 1977, Murray became the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She worked in a parish in Washington, DC based in ministry to the sick until her retirement in 1982. Murray died of pancreatic cancer in Pittsburgh, PA on July 1, 1985. Researchers have discovered that Murray struggled with her sexuality and gender identity during her lifetime. Rosalind Rosenberg, author of Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray, asserts that Murray identified as a transgendered man but did not have the information or acceptance available during her lifetime to describe it.
Me’Shell Ndegéocello (b. 1968) is a singer-songwriter, musician and activist born Michelle Lynn Johnson in Washington, D.C. She adopted the phonetic spelling of her first name and the Swahili name Ndegeocello, meaning “free like a bird,” as her last name. Known for her fusion of soul music with rock and reggae, she is reportedly credited as the facilitator of the neo-soul movement in 1990s. She began her career in the go-go music scene of D.C. with such bands as Rare Essence and Little Bennie and the Masters. After auditioning for various bands, she released her Grammy-nominated debut album, Plantation Lullabies. Throughout her storied career, she has worked with John Mellencamp, Madonna, Chaka Khan, Indigo Girls, and The Rolling Stones among many more. She is a notable voice in the LGBT community, she has continued to be an outspoken advocate for gay rights through her artwork and music. Ndegeocello has two children.
Ma Rainey (1886 – 1939), known as the "Mother of the Blues,” was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers. She was born Gertrude Pridgett in Columbus, Georgia, on April 26, 1886, to parents Thomas and Ella Pridgett. She married William Rainey at the age of 18 and the two toured as performers with multiple minstrel and vaudeville shows, including the Rabbit Foot Minstrels. After her marriage ended, Rainey established her own performance company and named it, “Madame Gertrude Rainey and her Georgia Smart Sets”. Rainey was married twice and rumored to have had a relationship with the singer Bessie Smith, who got her start as one of Rainey's performers. Most of her songs that mention sexuality refer to love affairs with men, but she also had lyrics that were lesbian-affirming. Particularly the 1928 song “Prove It on Me,” which Angela Y. Davis has called a precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s. In 1923, Rainey signed a contract with Paramount records and became one of the first recorded blues musicians. Between 1923 and 1928, she would record almost 100 records. After the death of her sister and mother, Rainey retired to Columbus, Georgia in 1935. Rainey passed away as the result of a heart attack on December 22, 1939.
Marlon Troy Riggs (1957 – 1994) was an award-winning filmmaker, artist, educator, poet and gay rights activist. Riggs wrote, produced, and directed eight films and videos. He also wrote numerous scholarly articles and held interviews on identity, politics, censorship, African American culture, and documentary film practice. Working during the height of the culture wars of the 1990s, Riggs examined highly contested topics within the fabric of American identity and African American culture. Riggs’ approach to filmmaking –addressing questions of cultural memory and race relations in America were exhibited in his films, Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment. He explored more personal topics such as sexuality or his HIV status in Tongues Untied, Affirmations, No Regret, Black Is…Black Ain’t. The latter productions made him vulnerable to criticism and political ridicule by right-wing conservatives and individuals who did not share his perspectives on American history, public media, or art. Most significantly, he was able to use his films and writings to shift notions of shame and despair around homosexuality into acts of resistance and agency. Marlon Riggs died from AIDS-related complications on April 5, 1994.
Nina Simone (1933-2003) was a singer-songwriter, musician and activist. Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone was groomed into an accomplished pianist as a child, made possible by donations and fundraising efforts through family friends. After graduating high school with honors, she was awarded a one-year scholarship at the Julliard School of Music in Philadelphia. With aspirations of being a concert pianist, the year at Julliard was meant to prepare her for the entrance exam at Curtis Institute of Music also in Philadelphia. Simone believed she was denied entry solely because she was African American. This event shaped her views on race relations and would influence her activism later in life. Fortunately, she was able to receive private piano lessons with Vladmir Sokoloff, an instructor at the Curtis Institute. To fund her lessons, she began singing and playing piano in a New Jersey bar. In an effort to keep her employment in the bar a secret from her conservative mother, she adopted the name Nina, Spanish for “little one” and “Simone” after French actress Simone Signoret. After receiving rave reviews for her performances, she was encouraged to sign with a recording company. Her debut album, Little Girl Blue established her as a talented musician. Although she was not openly bisexual, Simone was rumored to have relationships with women, and wrote of her attraction to both genders in her diary., She married New York police detective Andrew Stroud, who later became her manager, in 1961. The following year, they welcomed their daughter Lisa. The assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls led Simone to create music to express the pain of the period. She produced and created such protest songs as “Mississippi Goddam,” “Old Jim Crow,” “Why (The King of Love is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black.” The latter two songs dedicated to her friends, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Lorraine Hansberry, whose lives were tragically cut short. After lackluster sales of subsequent albums and cold reception from her record company, Simone believed she was being punished for her activism. Simone left Stroud and the U.S. in 1970, and sought refuge in various locations around the world include Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. She lived abroad for several years, finally returning to the U.S. in 1995 to reclaim music royalties owed to her after the release of her music without her permission. She performed and released music regularly until her health declined. Simone lost her battle with breast cancer on April 21, 2003, in her adopted home of Carry-le-Rouet, France, at age 70.
Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) was a human rights activist, most notably known for his work during The Civil Rights Movement. He was a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Rustin was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest advisors especially on techniques of nonviolent resistance. Rustin was extremely active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and helped to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Early in his career, he was arrested for “moral cause” which led to his outing to the public. However, once outed, he was completely open about his sexuality and was never ashamed. Criticism and discrimination over his sexuality led Rustin to have a more background role in the Movement. He never wanted his sexuality to have a negative effect on the Movement and this is often the reason that Rustin’s efforts are not widely known. When civil rights legislation had been approved, Rustin became the head of the AFL-CIO African American constituency group, the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Working alongside A. Philip Randolph until his passing in 1979, Rustin worked to integrate unions and promote unions among African Americans. He served on several humanitarian missions to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Haiti. In the 1980s, he became a part of the LGBTQ movement as well as advocacy for AIDS education. Rustin believed that “gay people are the new barometer for social change.” He felt that injustice everywhere should not be tolerated and must be protested. He died August 26, 1987, as a result of a perforated appendix.
Billy Strayhorn (1915-1967) was an American composer, pianist, and arranger best known for his longtime collaboration with bandleader and musician Duke Ellington. As a young man, Strayhorn worked various jobs so that he could purchase his own piano. In high school, Strayhorn took centerstage in an all-white orchestra and went on to write music and lyrics for a musical revue for Cole Porter. At only 23, Strayhorn met Duke Ellington and had an impromptu backstage audition. Strayhorn started to write arrangements for Ellington’s orchestrations. Ellington moved him to Harlem where they lived together with many of the orchestra bandmates. Strayhorn moved out a year later to live with his partner, Aaron Bridgers. Strayhorn became the first openly gay jazz musician unafraid of public commentary on his identity. Through Strayhorn’s talented composing and arranging, Ellington’s band remained top of the charts, earning him a place by Ellington’s side for the next twenty-nine years. Working with Ellington, they took a step where many orchestra composers had never gone before, into musical theatre. They wrote the musical, Jump for Joy, that presented itself as a musical revue but instead is a social commentary on racism in America. His strong beliefs led him to work within the Civil Rights Movement, where he became close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although his work was renowned throughout the musical community, as a background composer and writer, he often did not get the credit he deserved from the public. Strayhorn died as result of complications of esophageal cancer on May 31, 1967.
Art Smith (1917-1982) was a major figure in the modernist art movement in America. Smith was born in Cuba to Jamaican parents, later settling in Brooklyn, New York. Smith volunteered at the Children’s Aid Society in Harlem where he met his soon to be mentor, Winifred Mason, a pioneer in African American Jewelry. Working at Mason’s shop in Greenwich Village, Smith learned how to combine his sculptural art background into the “wearable art” style of jewelry. Although composed of complex and detailed metal, Smith made sure his jewelry was always comfortable and wearable. His choice of using metal and copper rather than silver and gold made his jewelry more affordable for all social classes in America, hinting at his political beliefs. Originally opening a store in New York's predominantly Italian jewelry district, he soon left due to racial tensions and discrimination. His second store on West Fourth Street became the jewelry haven of Greenwich Village, which welcomed new forms of art, music, and writing. Smith was open about his sexuality, never hiding that he was gay, which was one of the reasons he felt much more comfortable in the Village. He was an activist for both African American and gay rights. Smith became so successful and popular that his work was sold in mainstream stores such as Bloomingdales and boutiques across the country. Smith had featured works in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and The New Yorker. His most famous commission was a brooch designed for Eleanor Roosevelt and a pair of cufflinks for Duke Ellington. Smith died as a result of heart disease in February 1982 in Brooklyn, NY. NMAAHC acquired Art Smith’s personal papers in 2018.
Alice Walker (b. 1944) is an American writer, poet, and activist known for her insightful portrayal of African American life and culture. Her novel, The Color Purple (1982), was the subject of a major motion picture and Broadway musical. Born in Eatonton, Georgia, the daughter of sharecroppers, Walker was injured in a childhood accident that blinded her in one eye. Her mother felt Walker would be better suited for writing than doing chores. Her writing and academic prowess afforded her a scholarship to Spelman College, where she studied for two years before graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1965. After graduation, she moved to Mississippi to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She began teaching and writing poetry, short stories, and essays. In 1967, Walker married Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer and the couple became the first legally married interracial couple in Mississippi. The couple had a daughter before divorcing in 1976. Walker published her first book of poetry, Once (1968) and first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) to much acclaim. In 1973, Walker alongside Zora Neale Hurston scholar Charlotte D. Hunt discovered the unmarked grave of Zora Neale Hurston’s in Ft. Pierce, Florida, and had it marked. In 1975, when Walker became the editor of Ms. Magazine, she published the article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” the article renewed interest for Hurston and her works. Walker later moved to California, where she wrote her most popular novel, The Color Purple in 1982. The book, which explores themes of gender and sexuality and features a lesbian relationship, won a Pulitzer Prize. It was adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg in 1985 starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey would later produce a musical version of the book with Quincy Jones in 2004. Walker continues to publish essays, short stories and poems as well as her memoir, The Chicken Chronicles in 2011. In the mid-1990s, Walker had a relationship with the singer Tracy Chapman, but prefers not to label her own sexuality.
Ethel Waters (1896-1977) was an American blues singer and actress. After singing in a local nightclub, she was asked to join the Braxton and Nugent vaudeville troupe that performed regionally around Baltimore, Maryland. She became an overnight sensation after singing “St. Louis Blues,” the only woman to have done so at that time. After establishing herself as a recording artist, she crossed the country on a national tour. Her talent led her to be the first African American woman to integrate Broadway when composer Irving Berlin awarded Waters a starring role in his Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer. She soon became one of the highest paid actresses on Broadway regardless of race. Her Broadway acclaim led Waters’ into a career in film and later television. Most notably evident was her appearance in the all-Black casted film, “Cabin in the Sky,” also starring Lena Horne and directed by Vincent Minnelli. Waters was a devoted advocate for actors’ rights and served as such in her positions on the executive council of Actors Equity and the Negro Actors Guild of America. During World War II, she was part of the Hollywood Victory Committee and sang on the radio for the USO camp shows. She was the second African American to be nominated for an Academy Award, the first African American to star in her own television show, and the first African American woman to be nominated for a primetime Emmy. In her later years, Waters became fervently religious and toured with evangelist Billy Graham on his numerous crusades during the 1960s. After suffering several debilitating ailments, Waters died September 1, 1977. Waters was married three times (her first marriage was at age 13) and had no children. In the early phases of her career, she identified as bisexual but never made a public announcement about her sexuality. During the 1920s, she lived with her girlfriend Ethel Williams. Waters enjoyed a large lesbian and gay following, including devoted fan Carl Van Vechten, who took the portraits of Waters found in NMAAHC’s collection.
Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977) was born in Los Angles, California, to a Nigerian father and African American mother. Wiley took an interest in art when his mother enrolled him in after-school art classes. By the age of 12, Wiley had attended an art exchange program in Russia. In 1999, Wiley earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and in 2001 earned his MFA from Yale University. Wiley is best known for creating heroic portraits of young African American men whom Wiley encountered on the streets. His first solo exhibition entitled, Passing/Posing, was shown in 2002 at the Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, IL. His popularity increased when in 2005, VH1 commissioned Wiley to paint portraits of all the 2005 Vh1 Hip-Hop Honors honorees. Wiley is a highly esteemed portraitist. In 2017, the National Portrait Gallery announced that Wiley and fellow visual artist Amy Sherald had been chosen to paint official portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Wiley currently resides in New York as well as Beijing, China. In 2014, Wiley founded Black Rock Senegal is a multi-disciplinary residency program developed of visual artists, writers, and filmmakers. Wiley is private about his personal life but identifies as a gay man publicly. His work Saint John the Baptist in NMAAHC’s collection features his partner, Craig Fletcher.
The collecting, processing, and cataloging of LGBTQ+ objects is an ongoing process. This portal page will be updated as more objects are added to the online collection. Please contact us at NMAAHCDigiTeam@si.edu with any corrections, additional information, or feedback.