Black American Sex Workers Who Made History
1. Dr. Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou was an American author, poet, dancer, actress and singer. She published several autobiographies, books of essays and poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. In interviews, Maya Angelou used the term prostitute to refer to her career as a sex worker.
“I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, “I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.” They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, “Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.” They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name [about her past as a sex worker]”. She was unashamed of her past, spoke candidly to her family about it, and always spoke out in her truth. When confronted rudely on her past she would say without hesitation, “there are many ways to prostitute oneself and you know a lot about that, don’t you dear?”.
2. Malcolm X
Before he became world famous as a leading civil rights activist, Malcolm X (then known as Malcolm Little or Detroit Red) led a life best described as tough. Left without a dad at an early age, the adolescent Malcolm made money on the streets of Boston through selling drugs, pimping, robbing wealthy households, and gambling. He also had a side line in street sex work by picking up wealthy gay men in bars. He would brag to his friends about the money he would make after he “serviced the queers” and at one point sustained a relationship with a white business man.
Malcolm X did vaguely write about his time working the streets, but he would falsely attribute his stories to a man named “Rudy”. “[Rudy] had a side deal going, a hustle that took me right back to the old steering days in Harlem. Once a week, Rudy went to the home of this old, rich Boston blueblood, pillar-of-society aristocrat. He paid Rudy to undress them both, then pick up the old man like a baby, lay him on his bed, then stand over him and sprinkle him all over with talcum powder. Rudy said the old man would actually reach his climax from that.” The excerpt from Manning Marable’s ” Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”, describes how the young Malcolm X earned his money servicing a wealthy man named Paul Lennon, one of many clients he had during his career in sex work.
3. Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender activist, drag queen, sex worker, and a popular figure in New York City’s gay art scene from the 1960s to the 1990s. One of the city’s oldest and best known drag queens, Johnson participated in clashes with the police amid the Stonewall Riots along with other trans women of color. She was a co-founder, along with Sylvia Rivera, of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.) in the early 1970s. She also was the “mother” of S.T.A.R. House along with Sylvia, getting together food and clothing to help support the young queens living in the house on the lower East Side of New York.
4. Josephine Baker
One of the most famous Black female sex workers of all time, Josephine Baker was a proud activist, openly bisexual, and a strong mother to her many adopted children. Baker was born Freda Josephine MacDonald in St. Louis on June 3, 1906. She started her career by touring on the vaudeville circuits, where she won over audiences with her dancing and comedic skills, though she faced harsh racism from her employers.
She famously left the United States for France, where she thrived in the integrated Parisian nightclub scene. By age 21, she was the highest earning burlesque entertainer in Europe. She later served as a sub-lieutenant in the Women’s Auxillary Air Force during World War II and secretly worked for the French Resistance, for which she was awarded a medal by the French government. By the time of her death in 1975, Baker had raised 12 adopted children in a French castle, performed at Carnegie Hall, and spoke at the March on Washington.
5. Mary Jones a.k.a. Peter Sewally
On June 11, 1836, New York City stone mason Robert Haslem went looking for a little nocturnal fun. He found it on Bleecker Street in the form of a pretty black prostitute, who took him to an alley near her house at 108 Greene St., a known whorehouse, where they got down to business. Afterward they parted ways, only for Haslem to realize that his wallet was missing. He reported the theft to police, who wasted no time in going undercover to catch the thief and she was promptly arrested. The woman gave her name as Mary Jones, and it was revealed during a police strip search that she was assigned male at birth.
The local press of the era had a field day with the case. When it was revealed that Mary Jones a.k.a Peter Sewally had actually fashioned a makeshift vagina out of cow skin that they wore tied around their waist for their clients, they were dubbed “Beefsteak Pete” and “The Man Monster”. Sewally reportedly used other aliases such as Miss Ophelia, Miss June, and Eliza Smith. They seemed surprised that anyone would be shocked by their cross-dressing. “I have always attended parties among the people of my own color dressed in this way—and in New Orleans I always dressed in this way,”. Peter was found guilty of grand larceny and sentenced to five years in state prison, but reappeared in news accounts several times in the ensuing years, invariably for the same offense. On May 16, 1853, the New York Times reported that at 3 a.m. the previous morning, Sewally was arrested just days after being released from yet another five-year sentence at Sing Sing. Terminology used to describe gender identity was non existent at the time, making it unclear if Sewally was a trans woman, gender non conforming, or a gay man.
6. Miss Major Griffin-Gracey
Best known as Miss Major or Mama, Griffin-Gracy is described as “an activist, instigator, and community organizer” on the promotional site of Major!, an upcoming documentary about her life. She is a former sex worker and a legend in the LGBT activist community, having been a defender of the rights of trans women of color for the past few decades. She was at Stonewall with Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and participated in the prisoner uprising at Attica. She also raised her son single-handedly while adopting the larger trans youth community as Mama. Currently, Griffin-Gracy serves as the Executive Director of the Trans Gender Variant Intersex Justice organization , which advocates on behalf of incarcerated trans women of color.