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“Have We a New Sex Problem Here?” Black Queer Women in the Early Great Migration

In November of 1920, the black newspaper The Chicago Whip ran a front-page article with the provocative headline, “Have We a New Sex Problem Here?” The short article detailing “one of the most peculiar divorce cases to yet be heard in Chicago” described an incident involving a married couple and another woman. After six years of “marital peace and harmony,” a woman named Ida May Robinson had “forsaken” her husband, Sherman Robinson, when “she left him without any cause” for a woman that she “had formerly known in Paducah, Kentucky.” According to their landlord, the two women had been living together in a boardinghouse prior to the official divorce. The possibility that a woman would leave her husband to enter a romantic relationship with another woman and live with her as a family unit was a new concept for the anonymous journalist; so shocking was this notion that the author wondered if Ida May Robinson and her partner heralded a “new sex problem.”

The “here” to which the headline referred was the rapidly growing African American district of Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, which swelled with recent Southern migrants like Ida May Robinson who were escaping the violent Jim Crow South. In 1920, the early Great Migration—a mass movement of Southern African Americans to the North and West—was in full swing. The black population of the city had more than doubled since 1910, and women outnumbered men. The majority of these Southern migrants were young, single, and often lived in boarding houses like the one where Robinson and her female partner made a home. At the time, such women were becoming known as “lady lovers” in both white and black communities, and the emergence of this term (before the usage of “lesbian” caught on) reveals their increasing visibility and numbers as women formed relationships and queer social networks in the urban North.

A portrait of Ethel Waters.

Ethel Waters photographed by Carl Van Vechten, August 28, 1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

By the 1920s, black lady lovers had more places to meet one another than ever before, such as the popular entertainment industry, which encompassed segregated forms of black vaudeville, the spectacle of black musicals, and the rapidly expanding market for “race records”—later renamed “rhythm and blues.” Popular performing women like Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters subtly hailed their audiences with veiled references to homosexuality and took advantage of the privacy and liminal space of touring life to enact same-sex relationships on the road. Beyond the stage, black lady lovers were becoming newly visible on northern city streets. Singer Ethel Waters and her girlfriend, dancer Ethel Williams, could often be found in a lover’s quarrel on Harlem sidewalks, while performer Gladys Bentley also took to the streets, day or night, in men’s suits. Not only performing women, but also “sophisticated ladies” with “boyish bobbed hair,” wearing men’s “brogan shoes” were regularly viewed on Seventh Avenue in Harlem and State Street in Chicago. “Young women bedecked in male attire” could be seen “perambulat[ing] with a distinctive and well practiced swagger” down the main thoroughfares of black urban districts. Black women’s same-sex relationships in the urban North modeled new forms of modernity, as lady lovers prioritized romantic relationships with women over (or alongside) marriage and motherhood.

An image of Gladys Bentley wearing a tuxedo and a top hat.

Gladys Bentley, circa 1930. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Blues singer Alberta Hunter was a Southern migrant who ran away to Chicago from her Memphis home in 1911 as a teenager, and soon after found herself performing and involved with other lady lovers in the theatrical milieu. She took a train north after she heard that young girls made up to ten dollars a week singing in South Side cabarets. Soon she was a regular performer at the Panama Café, where women such as Florence Mills and Ada “Bricktop” Smith also rose to popularity, as well as singer Mattie Hite whom Bricktop emphatically referred to a “bulldagger” —a common term for a lesbian in this milieu. While performing at the Panama Café in 1915, Hunter first encountered a finely dressed young woman with “the most beautiful legs that were ever on a person,” who turned out to be Lottie Tyler, the niece of popular performer Bert Williams. Tyler lived in New York and was passing through town while working as a personal maid for a white actress. Sensing the attraction between each other, Tyler encouraged the singer to come visit her in New York. The two women soon became friends and off–and–on again lovers for many years. Alberta Hunter’s story demonstrates that black queer performing women’s increasing mobility helped them craft new relationships and networks.

However, multiple forces, from male journalists—like the author of the opening Chicago Whip article—to vice inspectors, ministers, police officers, doctors, and reformers were concerned with the sexual comportment of Southern migrants like Ida May Robinson and Alberta Hunter. Lady lovers’ desires for women were viewed as immoral, criminal, and pathological. Such women could never contribute to the cause of racial uplift, at least not according to the popular ideology of “respectability politics,” which required strategically hewing to Victorian gender roles in order to present “the race” as fit for full citizenship in the age of Jim Crow segregation. Recent immigrants and migrants who adhered to the traditional gender roles prescribed through Black Nationalist thought via channels such as Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, Negro World, were also incensed. Black women were needed to birth and raise the next generation of black leaders; lesbianism displaced men and put the future of the race in peril. There was no room for women’s sexual deviance in an increasingly masculinized struggle for racial equality and full citizenship.

Though lady lovers were visible participants in the black working-class districts of the early-twentieth-century urban North that were fashioned by the Great Migration, black community leaders were certain the public presence of such women threatened their struggle for racial justice in an era of heightened racial violence and tension. Despite this, lady lovers strategically created queer networks inside and outside of the black entertainment industry that allowed them to take part in the newly emerging sexual subcultures of the early twentieth century. Women such as Ida May Robinson dared to give up the only privilege they could claim —a “normal” (hetero)sexuality—in order to create relationships that met their needs, revealing that decades before the birth of modern gay liberation and black feminism, black lady lovers resisted strong social norms to create the independent lives they desired in the urban North.

Cookie Woolner is an assistant professor of history at the University of Memphis focusing on race, gender, and sexuality in modern American culture. She received her PhD in History and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan in 2014 and has held postdoctoral fellowships at Case Western Reserve University and Kalamazoo College. She has a chapter on LGBT history in the forthcoming Routledge History of the 20th Century United States edited by Darren Dochuk and Jerald Podair and is currently working on a manuscript entitled, “‘The Famous Lady Lovers:’ African American Women and Same-Sex Desire before Stonewall.”