William Dorsey Swann

Okay, I’m going to admit that I just learned about this one this week and I’m pretty excited about it. Almost all of the information available comes from two — Channing Gerard Joseph, who is writing a book The House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens about this topic but the book isn’t out yet, and Netisha Currie — who dipped into some archives to verify the story. What I’m saying is, I’m not going to pretend to have one hundred percent of the information. Just wanted to throw that disclaimer out there first. I was really going to wait for the book to come out but, like, I’m kinda too excited to wait until it comes out next year and then I read it to tell you about this.

So, today we’re talking about William Dorsey Swann. Swann was born somewhere in Maryland sometime around 1858. He was a slave in Hancock, Maryland for the first several years of his life — because Maryland was not part of the Confederacy, their slaves weren’t freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland didn’t free its own slaves until 1864, only a couple of months before the 13th Amendment was ratified. Swann was thankfully freed before then — thanks to the intervention of Union soldiers. Swann is known to have developed friendships with other queer former slaves, including Pierce Lafayette and Felix Hall, two formers slaves who are documented to have been in a relationship.

By the 1880s, Swann had moved to Washington D.C. In 1882, he was arrested for stealing books from the Washington Library Company and from Henry and Sara Spencer — who employed Swann at the Spencerian Business College. Swann pled guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail. In October, having served only one month of his sentence, Henry and Sara Spencer petitioned President Chester A. Arthur to pardon Swann. Both the judge who had sentenced him and the assistant US District Attorney even supported the petition — pointing out that the theft of books was only an effort to educate himself. It’s unknown if the pardon was granted.

At some point in the 1880s — before or after his previous arrest we’ll never know — he began hosting what we would now call drag balls, of the sort that had begun in Harlem in 1867 with the Annual Odd Fellows Ball. Of course, those balls — while not, perhaps “acceptable” were charity events hosted by relatively wealthy, elite African Americans who could get away with things that poor freed slaves could not. Swann himself was regularly dressing in fabulous gowns, which his brother made, and calling himself “the queen of drag” — well before the term “drag” was being used much outside of theaters and certainly before the term “drag queen” was coined (which doesn’t become popular until the 1920’s). Swann was arrested at one of these balls in January of 1887 — which had both black and white guests in drag. Even so, Swann wasn’t exactly breaking new, unheard of ground, but was definitely pushing at its edges.

Excerpt from The Washington Post
The Evening Star
The Washington Critic

Until April 12, 1888. One of Swann’s balls was held in a two-story home near the corner of 12th St and F St. And it was raided by police. The guests made a mad dash for the exits — but Swann made a charge for the police themselves. He was supposedly a large, imposing man who — that night — is described as having worn a cream-color satin gown. Swann physically fought the police to prevent them from entering — with no success. This was, however, one of the first times queer people fought back against police oppression.

13 black men, including Swann, were arrested, charged with “being suspicious characters” and made to pay fines or spend 30 days in jail. Their names were published in various papers – although those lists of names weren’t the same in every paper so that’s a fun mystery for someone else to solve. The list of names that were the same in every paper were: William Dorsey, John Smith, Jacob Byard, Charles Myers, Samuel Jackson, James Waters, James Howard or Laura Howard, James Taylor, and Benjamin Moore. Some papers also listed Jacob Lewis, Samuel Lewis, Lewis Jackson and Albert Lee. Nearly all of those arrested made bail — Swann was bailed out by his employer. This was reported in both The Washington Post, The Washington Critic, and The Evening Star on April 13. The Washington Critic, notably, called the event a “drag party” which may have been one of the earliest uses of that phrase.

Swann managed to avoid having any of his balls raided again until New Years Eve of 1895. That ball was barely starting when police came in — they arrested Swann and three of his black guests — letting his three white guests go, although they were later summoned as witnesses. The three black guests were charged with vangrancy but Swann was charged with “running a disorderly house” — that’s a term I’ve talked about before, but essentially it means they were accusing him of running a brothel. The witnesses testified that they had danced and drank alcohol — hardly damning, I don’t think, but it also didn’t exactly help. Swann was sentenced to ten months imprisonment — the judge didn’t think that was enough and stated: “I would like to send you where you would never again see a man’s face, and would then like to rid the city of all other disreputable persons of the same kind.”

The trial went by very quickly — Swann was convicted three days after being arrested. Three months into serving his sentence, he decided (correctly) this whole thing was unjust and that there was something that could be done about it. He filed a petition for pardon with President Grover Cleveland. He stated that he would never engage in the crime again, that he was a hard worker and an upstanding member of the community. Thirty of his friends signed the petition. However, the US District Attorney, A.A. Birney, was not on board this time, writing: “This petition is wholly without merit. While the charge of keeping a disorderly house does not on its face differ from other cases in which milder sentences have been imposed, the prisoner was in fact convicted of the most horrible and disgusting offences known to the law; an offence so disgusting that it is unnamed. This is not the first time that the prisoner has been convicted of this crime, and his evil example in the community must have been most corrupting.”

In July, Swann’s friends began pushing harder — stating that conditions in jail were bad for his health. I don’t know if these claims were true, but a doctor who had examined Swann in March and said he was healthy diagnosed him with a heart condition in July, claiming that being held in prison could potentially be deadly. Now, knowing who Grover Cleveland’s sister was, one might imagine he would be somewhat sympathetic to the plight of queer people in the US. One would be very wrong. Grover officially denied the pardon on July 29, 1896 — proclaiming that the concerns for Swann’s health did not outweigh the “character of the offense.”

Although the petition was unsuccessful, this does mark the first time in the history of the United States that anyone attempted to take legal action to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ people to assemble. Swann did survive the prison sentence, but retired from drag (unsurprisingly, I would say). His brother continued making dresses for men who wanted to participate in drag balls, which were a tradition that continues even today.

Mr. Brown, NOT William Dorsey Swann

Sadly, there’s no actual images of Swann — he often gets paired up with pictures of this incredible drag performers but this is actually Mr. Brown from the Vaudeville duo Gregory and Brown, who introduced the “cake walk” dance to the world. That’s no small thing either but it is a story for another day.

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