Melding Pride and Juneteenth
America’s first ‘drag queen’ was a former slave
His name was William Dorsey Swann, but to his friends, he was known as “The Queen.”
Let’s liberate some facts in recognition of both Pride Month and Juneteenth:
In the current “Don’t say gay” climate, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California is changing the political landscape by teaching Black Queer people to be empowered by history.
When I first read Channing Gerard Joseph’s work, “The First Drag Queen Was a Former Slave,” I couldn’t wait for one of my peers — a heterosexual prisoner who considers himself an expert on Black homosexuality — to tell me there were never any gay slaves in America.
One day, like clockwork, that so-called expert began to speak against Marsha P. Johnson.
“Marsha ‘P’ is where you start your history,” he said, “because you can’t name no other Black Queer person in history that got off on the police and kicked off resistance.”
I paused and said, “William Dorsey Swann — 1887.”
He didn’t believe me.
“Come on now, you’re making stuff up, brotha,” he said. “How come I ain’t never heard about this?”
At that moment, I realized that all of our great Black educators either didn’t know — or did know, and chose to leave people like me out of Black history.
So I recited a report that appeared in The Evening Star in 1887, taken from the Library of Congress:
“A ‘drag party’ raided this morning — John Smith, Jacob Bayard, William Dorsey, who by the way was the “Queen” … were charged in the police court with being suspicious characters. Last night, attired in handsome silks and satins, each in complete feminine costume, they indulged in a “drag,” in a quiet-looking house on the south side of “F” Street, near 12th. The “party” was raided by Lt. Amiss and the officers of the First Precinct.”
That night, when a cop ripped the Queen’s dress during the scuffle, the Queen said, “You is no gentleman.”
Channing Gerard Joseph’s research has given us historical facts we might never have known otherwise.
“William Dorsey Swann, born circa 1858, into the enslaved ownership of Ann Murray on her plantation in Hancock, Washington County, Md. On June 19, 1865, which marks the day the last enslaved Africans living in Texas were notified about the abolishment of slavery in America, Swann was about 7 years old. Swann endured racism, police surveillance, torture behind bars, and many other injustices.”
Beginning in the 1880s, Swann not only became the first American activist to lead what we would today call a Queer resistance group. In that same decade, he became the first known person to dub himself a “queen of drag,” or, in current parlance, a drag queen.
Wait, there’s more: Swann had an “intimate” friend, Pierce Lafayette, who was also born enslaved in Georgia. Lafayette was owned by the vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens.
Channing Gerard Joseph writes, “It’s interesting to note that Lafayette’s prior relationship with Felix Hall, a male slave dubbed ‘Lafayette’s negro mistress,’ is the earliest documented same-sexed romance between two enslaved men in the United States.”
Additionally, two of Swann’s younger brothers attended balls dressed in women’s clothing. The balls featured folk songs and dances, including the wildly popular “cakewalk,” so named because the best dancer was awarded a hoecake or other confection.
House parties, dance battles, underground safe spaces, police raids, incarceration, societal rejection, and being put on blast for simply enjoying the company of the culturally kindred — sound familiar?
Yes, we are still here.
By Floyd Smith
Death Row Contributor