African American, Feminist, & LGBTQ Solidarity at the Women’s House of Detention
The Women’s House of Detention, an eleven-story prison in the center of Greenwich Village, closed on June 13th, 1971. The prison was located on this site, between Greenwich Avenue, Sixth Avenue, Christopher Street, and West 10th Street for thirty nine years, beginning in 1932. Over the course of its lifetime, countless radical, revolutionary, transgressive, and “obscene” individuals passed through its doors. Many of those imprisoned were women of color, queer women, and gender non-conforming people, who have throughout history been arrested in disproportionately high numbers. Though the Women’s House of Detention was demolished by 1974, activists and scholars continue to recall the prison’s important history. It was, all at once, a building where extreme brutality and violence occurred, a place where queerness was made visible, and a significant site of solidarity and protest across the Black Power, Feminist, and LGBTQ-rights movements.
During the years of the prison’s operation, LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ people of color, could be stopped by the police or arrested for very little or nothing at all. In the 1950s and 1960s, police were especially violent when raiding Mafia-run bars serving lesbian patrons in the neighborhood, such as the Sea Colony and the Bagatelle. Many of the individuals arrested in these raids were brought to the Women’s House of Detention. At the same time, the prison’s proximity to the rest of the neighborhood allowed those who were imprisoned here to maintain connections to the neighborhood. Author and queer historian Hugh Ryan writes: “For queer women, the prison simultaneously served as a cautionary tale about how society disciplined those who broke its rules, and provided some of the clearest evidence that it was possible to break those rules and survive.”
In her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, the black lesbian activist and poet Audre Lorde remembers:
“Across the Village street in the early summer dusk, a handful of impatient husbands and lovers stood, calling back and forth to unseen but well-heard inmates within the grated windows of the Women’s House of Detention on the west side of Greenwich Avenue. Information and endearments flew up and down, the conversants apparently oblivious to the ears of the passersby as they discussed the availability of lawyers, the length of stay, family, conditions, and the undying quality of true love. The Women’s House of Detention, right smack in the middle of the Village, always felt like one up for our side – a defiant pocket of female resistance, ever-present as a reminder of possibility, as well as punishment.”
Almost exactly two years before the prison closed, the Stonewall Riots erupted just down the street from the Women’s House of Detention on June 28th, 1969. That evening, the police conducted one of their many raids on the Stonewall Inn, a bar that served gay patrons, and the patrons fought back. The protests (incited in part by the black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson) are credited with launching the modern LGBTQ-rights movement. What is less known, however, is that the people held in the Women’s House of Detention were an essential part of this historic moment.
In 2019, Polly Thistlethwaite, the Interim University Dean for Library Services at CUNY, published an essay in honor of Stonewall’s 50th anniversary titled “Where Were the Lesbians in the Stonewall Riots? The Women’s House of Detention & Lesbian Resistance.” According to the various accounts Thistlethwaite cites to answer this question, hundreds of lesbians were imprisoned at the Women’s House of Detention the night and week of the Stonewall Riots, where they cheered on the protestors. Doric Wilson, she writes, “told [Stonewall chronicler David Carter] that the Saturday night of the riots, he saw ‘red sparks falling from on high, through the night air, as in a gentle rainfall … The prisoners were setting toilet paper on fire and dropping it from their cell windows to show support for the rioters.” Meanwhile, Thistlethwaite asserts, most of the female protestors arrested at Stonewall ended up being jailed inside the House of Detention.
Ryan also refers to Daughters of Bilitis member Arcus Flynn‘s account of the riots, in which she recalls that the imprisoned women chanted “Gay power! Gay power!” from the House of Detention. According to Ryan, Black Panther Party member Afeni Shakur (who was the mother of Tupac Shakur) was one of the women inside the prison at this time. She had been arrested for her participation in the so-called “Panther 21” members of Party accused of plotting to bomb New York landmarks and department stores. Following the momentum of the Stonewall Riots, a group within the Mattachine Society – one of the earliest American gay rights organizations – wanted to protest against the Women’s House of Detention in support of Shakur and Joan Bird, also alleged to be part of the “Panther 21.” When the Mattachine Society refused to participate in such an event, which they feared would cause conflict with the authorities, the group chose a new name: the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). From Christmas to New Years of 1969, Ryan writes, the GLF, which became one of the most significant organizations of the LGBTQ movement, took part in organizing around-the-clock protests of the prison.
The following year, when Shakur’s charges were dropped, she attended a workshop at the Black Panther Party’s 1970 Revolutionary Constitutional Convention led by the Gay Liberation Front. Together, she and the other workshop members developed a list of demands for the Convention Floor emphasizing the necessity of gay and feminist liberation in the Black Power movement. Needless to say, the roots of this conversation began in the heart of Greenwich Village, in the organizing that occurred against the Women’s House of Detention. The intimate links between parts of the LGBTQ-rights movement and the Black Power movement continued to grow.
The long list of notable figures who were imprisoned at the Women’s House of Detention across its years of operation also includes Ethel Rosenberg, Dorothy Day, Andrea Dworkin, Valerie Solanas, and Angela Davis. Both Dworkin and Davis wrote about their mistreatment and the abuse they witnessed and experienced in the House of Detention, and in 1967 Sara Harris published her book, Hellhole: The Shocking Story of the Inmates and Life in the New York City House of Detention for Women, which detailed the deplorable conditions as well as individual interviews of the inmates. These accounts aided in the calls for the closure of the overcrowded prison, which faced ongoing allegations of racial discrimination, abuse, and mistreatment of prisoners.
Still, when the last imprisoned people were transferred from the Women’s House of Detention to a new facility on Rikers Island in 1971, 200 people gathered in protest. According to The New York Times account, the demonstrators argued the transfer would isolate those who were imprisoned from their community, and weaken protections against institutional violence. They knew that the closing of the House of Detention did not signify the end of imprisonment for the community’s people, but simply removed it from sight. Nearly fifty years later, the necessity of remembering the prison’s history, the human rights abuses it perpetuated, and the cross-movement solidarity and protest that developed in resistance to it, remains absolutely imperative.
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