Neither Sin Nor Civil Rights: Ethel Sawyer’s Study of a Lesbian Community

Sawyer, 1965-6
Black and white portrait of Ethel Sawyer around the time she submitted her 1965 research essay at Washington University.

In 1965 24-year-old Ethel Sawyer completed the first known academic study of an African American lesbian community. Sawyer’s analysis of “mate stability” helped me develop an understanding of why in the 1950s and 60s gay women who rebelled against sex and gender norms participated in the most normalizing of all institutions: marriage. Although Sawyer did not hear of any such ceremonies during the two years she spent conducting fieldwork, many lesbians and gay men had same-sex weddings in this era, which is the topic of my current research.

I had three operating assumptions (all wrong) about Ethel Sawyer: that her essay grew organically from personal knowledge of the lesbian community (in other words, that she was a lesbian); that simply by virtue of being African American she grew up in a Christian environment that shunned homosexuals; and that her civil rights activism in 1961 (she was a member of the Tougaloo Nine who conducted a “read-in” at the local white library) informed her study of the lesbian community. Lesbian and gay activists and historians have, after all, long argued that the civil rights movement was a major political inspiration for lesbian and gay rights activists.

Sawyer was raised in a Christian environment, but church services and Biblical teachings were not a defining feature of her life growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. She has always been heterosexual and sees no significant relationship between her civil rights activism and her 1965 study. In other words, neither sin nor civil rights framed her thinking as she met, researched, and socialized with young African American lesbians, some of whom lived in and around St. Louis’s Pruitt–Igoe housing project.

Sawyer’s original essay can be found here (click on the word “here”). This blog post is published under an Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Creative Commons license.

A note about the questions: in my initial correspondence with Sawyer she explained that she had destroyed all her notes from her research, conducted half a century earlier, and remembered few details about it. My questions therefore focused on her life history up to the point of writing the study so that I might better understand how a heterosexual woman came to write a non-judgmental study of a highly stigmatized population. I was also curious to know more about the 1961 Tougaloo Nine read-in as it is not as well documented as similar actions of that time.

Elise: Tell me about your family background: where you were born, the kind of family (kin network) you were raised in; about your religious/spiritual background, if any.

Ethel: I was born in a small town in Mississippi, the fifth of thirteen children, two of whom died in early childhood. My parents moved to Memphis, Tennessee when I was about two years old and with the exception of a short stint of time back in Mississippi at age five, my childhood was spent in Memphis. We lived with my paternal grandmother in a house she owned. I grew up in an emotionally nurturing environment and spent the happiest years of my life playing with my best friend, Little Ruth, my two younger brothers, Bubba and Herbert, and other neighborhood children: making mud pies and “sea grass” dolls, shooting marbles, climbing trees, skating, riding bicycles, playing hopscotch and hide and seek. We dangerously walked the railroad trestle and waded, sometimes nude, in the sewage-infested creek that ran along the eastern edge of my North Memphis neighborhood named “New Chicago.” Life was so much fun!

My father worked for the Union Pacific Railroad as a freight handler. During periods of long “layoffs” in the late 1940s and early 1950s, my mother, much to my father’s dismay, would take us on a big yellow bus to pick cotton in the fields of Arkansas to supplement the family income. A quiet, easy-going, nurturing mother with a sense of humor, she exemplified strength, trust in her children and a belief that we were supposed to succeed at certain things because “God gave the brains to do so.” I learned early that there was little point in seeking “pats on the back” from her. A tolerant woman, I do not recall ever hearing her speak ill of our friends, neighbors or any others in the community. My mother stressed hard work and having your own. My father, a very proud man who eschewed receiving charity of any kind, even during our poorest times, stressed formal education and the acquisition of knowledge. And, while he often told me I was “smart,” I hoped, long into my adulthood, that I would never become the “educated fool” that he often accused others of being.

My family was not among the churchgoers in the community. However, my father spent a good deal of time, during my young years, in religious activity at home, primarily humming religious songs, “preaching” to his kids and sometimes praying in a room for long spells. During one period in my early years, he would call us in from play each night for Bible lessons before bed with each child participating according to his or her level. Dancing, listening to the blues, playing cards and drinking alcohol were not options in my father’s house, at least when he was home. My mother added some balance when my father was at work, by pretending not to notice her children playing cards and learning to dance to the music of the day.

Elise: What attracted you to Tougaloo College?

Ethel: I had not anticipated going to college, based on my family’s financial situation, and initially knew nothing of Tougaloo College. My high school major had been Business Education (typing, shorthand, transcription, etc.) in preparation for employment in that area. My high school counselor/teacher, Addie Jones, presented to me my test scores on a national exam and a case for going to college. We explored several black colleges and selected Tougaloo. Ms. Jones had connections at the college, and Tougaloo was closer to my home than the other colleges.

Elise: What was the school like? What were the teachers and other students like?

Ethel: Tougaloo was a college that afforded students a good education in a supportive and tranquil, relatively secluded setting about seven miles from Jackson, Mississippi. Sunday vesper service and dressing up for Sunday cafeteria lunch (gloved hands and all) were standards during my first year or so, as were other college activities, organizations, and programs, including sports and sororities and fraternities. These college-approved activities were sometimes supplemented, after night dorm closures, with forays, via dormitory fire escapes, into the city of Jackson, its nightclubs and other entertainment venues. Within that context, we also had our lore, which involved “Will Shoot” and “Won’t Shoot,” names given to the two security guards who patrolled the college grounds.

Tougaloo’s student body consisted of students from various locations throughout the state of Mississippi, and a few other states as well. There were “day” students who lived in Jackson and nearby areas and who were bussed or driven to and from the campus, and there were the students who lived on campus and who generally came from more distant locations. I lived in one of the dormitories and roomed with two students from towns in Mississippi. I remember Tougaloo students as mostly serious about their studies and respectful to each other.

The Tougaloo faculty and administration (African American, European American, African, German Jewish immigrant, etc.) fostered an atmosphere of interest in their students and a caring about their academic success. Tougaloo’s administrators, a quite small group, were equally encouraging and supportive of us as students and as individuals.

Elise: I gather the administration was supportive of students’ political activities. What was your experience?

Ethel: I cannot say that the administration encouraged student political activities. I believe I can say that the administration did not strongly discourage student political activities, initially, during the Tougaloo Nine library sit-in, and during the following year, my senior year. I do not recall any staff member being present or interfering with our student mass meetings held in the chapel or any rumor that any member of the administration was displeased or would be if we were to take political action off campus. I do recall at least one meeting, perhaps a week before the sit-in, between the would-be Tougaloo Nine, the college chaplain, Reverend John Mangram, and soon to be assassinated civil rights leader, Medgar Evers. We were told at that meeting that the college president, Dr. Beittel, wished to speak with each of us. I remember standing before the president, in his office, being questioned as to whether or not I had planned, of my own free will, to participate in the library sit-in. The day following our arrest, and while we were still in jail, President Beittel and Reverend Mangram showed up in the women’s cell room with a change of clothing for each of us four female members of the Tougaloo Nine. We were happy to see them!

Tougaloo’s administration was to deal with a lot more than the Tougaloo Nine read-in in the months and years to follow. Its students joined the Freedom Rides, participated in Mississippi voter registration drives, boycotts, marches and numerous other civil rights activities. Some members of its faculty also participated.

Elise: How did you come to be involved in the read-in? [Nine Tougaloo students participated in a read-in in a white-only library].

Ethel: It was the spring of 1961, and sit-ins and other forms of protest by college students were occurring in some places in the south, such as North Carolina. There was also talk of Freedom Riders headed for other areas of the south. I recall taking part in several sidewalk conversations and shortly afterwards, a series of rather large student meetings in the chapel discussing the need for Tougaloo students to become involved in helping to break down barriers of discrimination. Someone suggested we form a local youth chapter of the NAACP and invite Medgar Evers, Mississippi’s NAACP Field Secretary, to speak with us. I remember sitting in the audience when he arrived one evening to great excitement, and there was hushed respect as he walked to the front of the room and spoke.

I missed what turned out to be the last mass meeting, having asked my two roommates to take notes so they could tell me what happened. My boyfriend, Roger, and I had about two dollars between us and we had made plans to walk down the road to the village grill to eat hamburgers, play the jukebox and dance on a date night out. I learned, upon returning to the campus, that in this most important meeting, the decision had been made that a challenge to the system by Tougaloo students would take place soon and that volunteers were needed. First, though, students should contact their parents for permission to participate.

I observed tears in the eyes of one of my roommates who had telephoned her parents and had been cautioned about taking part. As I listened, I distinctly remember thinking, “I can do this.” I reasoned that since my home was Memphis (rather than Mississippi), my father was now working in California, and my mother, who was in Memphis, was not working, that there would be few, if any, repercussions for my family. I did not inform my parents, nor do I recall that my other roommate who had already volunteered earlier that evening informed her parents. The two of us joined, anyway, with the other seven students to “read-in” at the Jackson Municipal Library reserved for whites, a group which, thereafter, became known as the Tougaloo Nine. We were: Meredith Anding, James Bradford, Alfred Cook, Geraldine Edwards, Janice Jackson, Joseph Jackson, Albert Lassiter, Evelyn Pierce (Ameenah Omar) and me, Ethel Sawyer.

Elise: How did you feel—exhilarated/terrified, etc.—during the action?

AP Photo Tougaloo 9Ethel: I learned a short while later that I was not nearly as afraid as I should have been. At the time, though, I did not feel any real fear. I trusted the people who were planning and guiding. It was explained to us, for example, that a major news organization (Associated Press, I believe) would be near the scene when we arrived at the library and would follow and photograph our movements from our cars into the library. This, it was felt, would give us some protection from physical violence. We were also told that we would be bailed out of jail right away (which was not allowed to happen), all legal fees would be covered, and other things along these lines. I also, though, remember some cautioning to the effect that everything cannot always be anticipated or controlled.

I do remember feeling somewhat calm but cautious, hoping nobody would suspect, as we were let out of the cars a block or so away, that we were about to enter the Jackson Municipal Library reserved for whites. Once inside the library, I headed toward the desk where at least one or more students had already arrived. Assessing the situation, I surmised that checking out my assigned book was not going to happen that day, so I took a book off the shelf and sat down at one of the tables. I kept my head lowered mostly as if to read, while all the time trying to keep eye contact with some other members of the group who were near, and alternately looking through the large library window, watching a fist shaking crowd of whites gather on the sidewalk across the street. Two things occurred to attest to the condition of my nerves during that time. Concerning the crowd, I remember hoping that the police would hurry up and get there to arrest us.

Photo -Ethel Sawyer - 1961-Tougaloo Nine Sit-in Mug ShotThe other thing is that once our arrest was announced by the officer in charge, I stood up to gather my belongings, glanced down at the book I had taken from the shelf and discovered it had been upside down all the time. I was embarrassed for myself and was glad nobody had witnessed that. I regained my emotional balance a bit as we were led outside. During that walk past the jeering, outraged, pre-mob of whites, I deliberately “threw my head in the air” (I “snubbed” them) and proceeded with the others to the police cars waiting to take us to jail. Time Magazine (April 7, 1961) ran a photo of this walk, capturing three of the four female members of the group, Janice Jackson, Evelyn Pierce and me, with the caption: “The old, smiling “Ma’am?” has become a cool “I didn’t hear.”

Elise: How did you come to study the lesbian community?

Ethel: I was a graduate student and research assistant in the sociology department at Washington University, working under a university grant that focused on public housing problems and issues [which resulted in the now-classic text Behind ghetto walls: Black families in a federal slum]. While sitting in my car on one of the lots of the large Pruitt Igoe housing project getting my notes and thoughts together, I was approached by a young woman named Jackie. She came up to the car, sat down on the curb and we held a conversation on a wide range of topics, including who I was and my reason for being there, my car (a Morris Minor convertible), who she was (including her gay identity), and some of her gay friends who lived in Pruitt Igoe who could help me if I needed help. I was asked, eventually, if I wanted to meet her gay friends. I said “Yes.” We visited an apartment where there were maybe five to seven women present. Not all of them were occupants of that apartment… We were all introduced, after which Jackie explained my reason for being in Pruitt Igoe. I don’t remember much else about it, just people laughing and talking about different things, and then the feeling shortly after I left the apartment that I had not really understood all of what had been said.

My field notes were tape recorded by me and transcribed by sociology department clerical staff as was customary and with a copy returned to me. Shortly afterwards I was asked to a meeting with two of my major professors/grant administrators, Lee Rainwater and David Pittman. During the meeting, I was presented with the case of a lack of and need for research in the area of female homosexuality, why I could/should do this, and would I try? I agreed. A few weeks later these professors twice met with Jackie and Gina, two influential members of the group. I was not included in either of the meetings. Despite my questions to both the professors and the research subjects involved, no one apparently felt a need to discuss the meetings with me. All gave sort of “Oh, nothing or not much, or we just talked” kind of responses. I never pressed the matter.

So the research into a female homosexual community in St. Louis, the participants whom I alternately referred to as “my girls” or “the girls” and more formally as “Jim’s Group” (based on one of their primary gathering places, Jim’s Bar and Grill) moved forward. Part of the research, representing a merger of three different papers on the subject, culminated in the broader paper, “A Study of a Public Lesbian Community” presented in partial fulfillment of the Master of Arts degree, Essay Honors category, September 1965. I continued my research and study until 1967 when I left to join the Tufts University’s Delta Health Project in Mound Bayou, Mississippi as a research associate.

Elise: What do you remember about the people you interviewed?

Ethel: Almost 50 years have passed since the study, and I have no notes to refresh my memory. When it became abundantly clear that I would not write further about my research, I made a fire in the back yard barbecue pit in the mid-90s following a serious illness and burned the boxes of papers and raw data I had hauled around for years. I wanted to make sure that the identities of the respondents were protected.

Some thoughts do stand out, though, and seem to be more related to the research itself, rather than to individual persons. The major portion of the study involved what sociologists called “participant observation” or the “anthropological method in sociology.” So I went where “the girls” went and did pretty much what they did. Seems most of their time was spent either at Jim’s Bar & Grill or at someone’s house, although we sometimes went other places, like Ms. Fannie’s Ball. There was much more time spent in my observations on interactions, and my recording of these, in contrast to specific interviews with individuals.

The person I remember the most is Jackie, my entrée into that community, and who was the person to introduce me to different members of the group over time. It was she who sometimes accompanied me to my interviews with other members of the group, and the person I often picked up to ride together to Jim’s and different other places. I believe her to have been my strongest supporter. Jackie and I also had an easy-going relationship, and it seems we laughed a lot. Jackie informed me early into the research that the group had chosen a name for me. My name would be “Icky.” I thought it a rather odd name, but didn’t protest. And so, from then on, I answered to the name, “Icky.”

Elise: What was the most interesting to you about the social network and what surprised you?

Ethel: Once the agreement was made that I would conduct the study and the research started, the whole idea of a lesbian subculture began to emerge as interesting to me: who they were, their perspectives, activities, interactions, associations, etc. Within this context, at a more specific level, probably the areas that interested me the most were some of those related to the lesbian roles of stud and fish, issues of mate instability, and of commitment to homosexuality. These were the individual areas of focus for my first three papers submitted to my major advisor on the research, and which also constituted the basis for the paper, “A Study of a Public Lesbian Community.” It was interesting to me that changes in roles occurred, that there was a high degree of mate instability, and that fish were a lot less committed than studs to being in the “life.” It surprised me that some fish felt they could (and indeed they sometimes did) leave the “life” and return to it at will.

…During the study itself, I think that members of Jim’s group became just people for me, maybe people with a bit of a quirk, but just people, anyway, trying to live their lives. Working with the lesbian community ultimately presented me with the opportunity to not just do academic research but to meet, interact with and learn about individuals whom I would never have met or known. This, too, served to broaden my understandings and my perspectives on homosexuality and, subsequently, further enrich my life.

Elise: I want to understand how homophobia impacted African American women (and men). I would therefore like to know your reflections on the issue of homophobia in the African American community as it applied to Tougaloo College, your study in St. Louis, your own personal perceptions at that time. I imagine you thought about it a lot while doing your St. Louis research.

Ethel: I really do not have the expertise/knowledge to shed much light on homophobia and the African American community. I did not hone in on it as a research concept, nor did I do any serious reading on the subject. Within that context then, I am not sure that my reflections are of much value. I will, however, give them as they relate to growing up, my years at Tougaloo, time conducting my research, and time immediately afterwards.

The subject of homosexuality was not one I heard referred to much while growing up, and I don’t recall ever hearing the subject discussed at home. I do remember a little neighborhood boy, quite younger than I, who was sometimes referred to behind his back as a “sissy” by some of his young peers. The tone of the reference was different from one sometimes applied to a child who might be afraid to take on a particular task. Somewhere around my teens, it was pointed out to me by a friend that a particular woman was a “bulldagger.” “She likes women,” my friend said. Looking back, I don’t recall anyone outwardly picking on the little boy or any other discussions related to the orientation of the woman. As I have thought back on this, perhaps at least two variables might have been at play. One is that both the little boy (and his family) and the woman seemed to have been just a part of the overall community of people, many of whom knew each other. The second, and it seems apparent to me looking back now, is that I lived in a rather insular environment and emerged from it sort of naïve. (Most of us were probably rather naïve “back in the day” in contrast to now). The only other person of whom I was aware, whose sexual orientation was questioned, was one of our high school teachers, said to “like boys.” Other than the occasional teasing about him, this teacher appeared to hold a position of respect at the school.

During my college years, I do not recall even one discussion involving a possible homosexual/gay/lesbian orientation of a fellow student. Looking back now, I have to ask myself what were the odds that in a student body of 700 or 800 students, there were no gay students or what could be said (if anything) about the climate, about those students who might have been gay, and about the responses of their Tougaloo classmates who might have been aware.

Consenting, later, to the urgings of my Washington University professors to conduct research on a lesbian community in St. Louis [see below], I simply don’t remember having had much concern about homophobia in the community. Perhaps I was existing, still, in a rather insular environment, in a life lived close to the university and mostly with fellow graduate students and other young people of similar interests I think, also that being just naïve, still, played its role. After all, what, objectively, could have made me think that I could successfully conduct a field study in such an area, where, as explained by my professors, so little had been done? And, while I did not want people to think I was lesbian because I was conducting field research in that area, those who really “mattered” knew better.

Interestingly, fear of homophobia did not appear to be a huge issue that I detected among participants in my study at the time, although I do believe that homophobia, itself, from whatever source, posed more of a threat to fish (women assuming a more feminine role) than to studs (those taking on a more masculine role. Couples were almost always comprised of a fish and a stud. In some other communities, the terms femme and butch were used).

It was not until a year or so after leaving graduate school that concerns began to surface for me about the study and its implications for my own life. I was on my first teaching job at Haverford College when I received a phone call from my dissertation advisor, Lee Rainwater, encouraging me to finish my dissertation and get it to him soon. It was a difficult, troublesome time for me trying to decide what to do. That time, unlike in the past, the major issue for me did in fact have to do with people’s future perception of me and whether or not the study of female homosexuality was the area on which I wanted to build my academic career. I decided, at that time, that it was not… I think, though, that homosexuality as a human and social issue has remained in my consciousness, and hopefully has been reflected in my relationships with people in general, and friends and associates in particular, some of whom are members of the gay community.

So, in further response to your question, homophobia did impact me as an African American woman to the extent that it played a role in my decision not to complete a dissertation on the subject of lesbianism in a community. But I would say that the decision was more related to perceived survival in the academic world rather than homophobia in the African American community. Having said that, I also did not want people to think I was gay when I was not, whatever the community.

***If readers have images of African American lesbians in and around St. Louis in the 1960s that I could use in this post, please send them my way.