The Unspoken Past: Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History
Wesley Chenault, December 2006
The Unspoken Past: Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History, 1940–1970, a 2005 exhibition at the Atlanta History Center, included a simple poem written by soldier Thom W. Mitchell in 1962. Mitchell wrote "Pro Dico" [In Lieu of Speaking] as an expression of his desire and affection for fellow soldier William J. Whittaker III, conveying a quiet dignity in an era typically characterized as dangerous and frightening for homosexuals. Whittaker, an African American born in Montgomery, Alabama, on February 3, 1942, spoke of his relationship with Mitchell in a series of oral history interviews conducted for the exhibit. Whittaker and Mitchell forged a bond while serving in the military, and Mitchell introduced Whittaker to the gay social scene. Shortly after the two traveled to London, Mitchell was discharged from the Army for his homosexuality. Whittaker later wrote Mitchell, thanking him for the trip and expressing his affection. In response, Whittaker received a letter, along with the poem in which Mitchell declared: "I have no poetic pretensions, but I write here in poetic form because I find it lends emphasis to feelings I would have you fully understand. It is my wish that you should keep this…until the day when we both will smile and say ‘hello' again."
They never did see each other again. But their story is significant as a poignant reminder of the vital role oral history has played in recovering the experiences of LGBT women and men. Stories like these also capture viewers' attention and spark their imagination as they discover a little known aspect of Atlanta's social and cultural history.
LGBT Collections at the Kenan Research Center
Throughout much of its modern history, Atlanta has acted as a magnet for gays and lesbians, attracting them for personal, professional, and political reasons. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, Atlanta has created an ever-growing infrastructure of businesses, entertainment venues, political organizations, social networks, and a publishing industry. The city has become the southern regional center for LGBT culture, and several local institutions contain valuable source materials on the LGBT community, past and present, including the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center (www.atlantahistorycenter.com), Emory University (www.emory.edu), and Georgia State University (www.gsu.edu).
Despite current acquisition efforts at these institutions, there remains little accessible documentation of the lives of LGBT women and men in Atlanta and the South during much of the early 20th century. Considerable work remains to locate, acquire, preserve, and make available source materials, especially those documenting African Americans' and women's lives and experiences.
An ongoing oral history project at the Kenan Research Center has marked an important step in that direction. The center began collecting in the early 1990s with the help of the Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History Thing, Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of the city's queer history. Though the organization dissolved in the late 1990s, its collection forms the cornerstone of the research center's LGBT collections. The center has also begun intensive outreach to bolster this significant repository of LGBT archival resources, including photographs, personal papers, and organizational records. At times, the oral history and archival efforts have reinforced each other in unexpected ways. One particularly gripping example occurred during an oral history interview with Atlanta resident Barbara Vogel, who was born in Crawford Long Hospital in May 1939. While reflecting on her early years, Vogel revealed that her mother, Dorothy Vogel, had had a series of female partners—all documented in three photo albums, the earliest dating to 1918. Having established a strong rapport with Barbara Vogel and her partner, Charlene McLemore, we were elated when she donated the albums to the research center.
Our collections also include some less obvious but still vital sources, such as the city's first nightlife magazine, Gay Atlanta. Begun in 1937, the guide featured entertainment and attractions, points of interest, jokes, a downtown map, and local information. Gay Atlanta also contained information about the clubs, restaurants, and performers that appear in many of our oral histories. To take just one example, in 1955, Guy Dobbs managed the Queen of Clubs, bringing in female impersonators such as Bobbie La Marr, a well-known performer who appeared regularly at the Wonder Club in New Orleans. Dobbs was a part of the local Atlanta show business scene, as both a nightclub manager and performer. At Club Peachtree, a straight venue, one could catch his drag act as "Terry Lynn." Just from reading the latest issue of Gay Atlanta, a reader would have known that the club was located on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta—the city's entertainment center. For straight audiences, these clubs were a fun and unconventional way to spend a night out on the town; for gay men and lesbians, they became important social spaces.
In an attempt to facilitate the use of local primary resources by scholars, Kerrie Cotten Williams, archivist at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, and I are embarking on an initiative to survey local holdings of materials related to Atlanta LGBT events, organizations, and people and/or materials that provide context for research related to the city's LGBT culture, history, and politics. The objective of the survey is to identify resources in local institutions and better focus collecting efforts. Our goal is to have the information compiled and available when we welcome American Historical Association members and members of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History to a reception at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History on January 6, 2007, from 5:30–7:30 p.m. (101 Auburn Ave.).
While You're Here
Today Atlanta has a large and vibrant gay and lesbian population, with significant political, social, religious, and financial organizations and alignments. Members of the AHA who want to venture out from the annual meeting will find a refreshing variety of LGBT cultural offerings in the city. One especially helpful tool in planning your visit is the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau's LGBT web site, www.gay-atlanta.com, a useful guide for special events, community groups, gay neighborhoods, accommodations, and more. "In The Life Atlanta, Inc.," www.inthelifeatl.com, contains news on bars, clubs, organizations, and publications that cater to Atlanta's LGBT communities of color. For a calendar of events or local news, visit the online newspaper Southern Voice at www.sovo.com. And finally, be sure to peruse the web sites for Charis Books and More (1189 Euclid Ave., 404-524-0304, http://charis.booksense.com) and Outwrite Bookstore and Coffeehouse (991 Piedmont Ave., 404-607-0082, www.outwritebooks.com)—Atlanta's premier LGBT bookstores.
—Wesley Chenault is archivist at the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. In 2005, he was curator for The Unspoken Past: Atlanta Lesbian and Gay History, 1940–1970, an exhibit funded by the Georgia Humanities Council. He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.