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.

Mwanga II

f6683878f123c3906a10054ad966aa99Danieri Basammula-Ekkere Mwanga II Mukasa (Mwanga II for short) was born in 1868. His father was Muteesa I, the kabaka (or king, basically) of Buganda from 1856 until 1884. On October 18, 1884 Mwanga II became the 31st kabaka of Buganda (part of present-day Uganda). He was sixteen years old — and his reign was not at an easy time. Muteesa I had staved off the “invasion” of Christianity and Islam by playing members of three factions against each other — Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims. Mwanga II did not have the political finesse to keep that going for long after he came to power, and he was quite certain that these “invading” religions were the greatest threat facing his nation. Mwanga decided a more aggressive tactic was needed. British missionary Alexander Mackay, who quite liked the situation under Muteesa, did not like the changes under Mwanga and unfortunately, he’s the main source for the information I have on Mwanga’s reign — so, y’know, keep in mind that this is largely coming from a heavily biased source that definitely did include some absolutely false claims (like that Mwanga learned homosexuality from Muslims traders from Zanzibar — yeah, that didn’t happen).

Within his first year of ruling, Mwanga had ten Christians executed. Following that he had the archbishop James Hannington as he arrived at the kingdom on October 29, 1885. Like that old saying goes, “If you can’t stall them, have them die in mysterious circumstances near your kingdom’s border and hope no one traces it back to you.” (They did trace it back. Oops.) I should probably point out, for the sake of fairness, Hannington’s route took him through a particularly tumultuous area of Buganda’s borders and Mackay himself tried to warn him against going that way. Didn’t stop Mwanga from getting blamed.

king_mwanga
Mwanga II depicted in stain glass at the Monyonyo Martyr’s Shrine, dedicated to the Uganda Martyrs.

To make things worse, Mwanga’s harem (which consisted of both men and women) had been infiltrated by these new religious ideas and they were superceding old traditions. In the old traditions of Buganda, the kabaka was THE authority. You couldn’t tell a kabaka “no” about basically anything. (It’s good to be the king, y’know?) So when Mwanga wanted to sleep with some of the boys in his harem — which was, according to Bugandan tradition, absolutely within his rights — and they told him no because it conflicted with what they were being taught about their new faith (that men had to lie with women), he was infuriated. He also discovered one of those pages teaching Christianity to his “favourite and so far always compliant toy” Muwafi. (I mentioned that a lot of this comes from biased sources, right? So like, take that quote with a grain of salt.). Fearing the Christian missionaries were turning his courtiers into spies, he decided the only appropriate action was to execute every practicing Christian in his court. All told, it’s estimated there were 30 people he executed between January 31, 1885 and January 27, 1887 (including the boys in his harem that refused him). Twenty-two of them were burned alive, and would later become known as the Uganda Martyrs — officially sainted on October 18 of 1964 by Pope Paul VI. One of them, named Kitzito, was only 14 years old making him the youngest saint in history.

In terms of public opinion, the executions backfired on Mwanga on a massive, international scale. They riled up a lot of powerful people — particularly in the British Empire — who decided to back a rebellion to depose Mwanga II and replace him with his older brother Kiweewa. This decision was met with widespread popular support from the British people. The rebellion succeeded in 1888 — although Mwanga escaped — and Kiweewa became kabaka — for forty days. A band of Muslims deposed Kiweewa and put his half-brother Kalema on the throne. Kalema lasted a little bit longer — but Mwanga was nothing if not stubborn. He made a deal with the British to give up some of Buganda’s sovereignty if they’d help him get his throne back. So they did – and he was back on his throne by the end of 1889 and in a formal treaty with the British by December 26, 1890.

In many ways, this worked out well for Buganda — they were given a generous treaty (compared to other treaties in Africa), and the people of Buganda were allowed to administrate over the other areas that the British were including in the “Protectorate of Uganda.” They imposed their language, clothing, and diet on the rest of the protectorate. However, not everything was in their control; for instance, in 1894 the British imposed a ban on same-sex relations between men. I don’t really have any evidence to support this theory, but I think that might’ve been a contributing reason why in 1897, Mwanga decided he didn’t like being a British protectorate and declared war on Britain.

The war lasted from July 6 until July 20. The British soundly beat him, and he he was forced to flee into modern day Tanzania (German East Africa, at the time). Once there, he was arrested. He escaped, raised an army, attempted to take his throne back and was defeated again on January 15, 1898. This time he was exiled to the Seychelles (which, if you suck at geography like me and didn’t know, is 115 islands forming an archipelago in the Indian Ocean). Since he was stuck on an island, he did not go back to Buganda and actually even eventually converted to the Anglican Church before he died on May 8, 1903. In 1910 his remains were sent back to Uganda where they were interred in the Kasubi Tombs, where his father is buried.

So, okay, I hear you. What’s the big deal about Mwanga? Consider this: in Africa, 36 countries — including Uganda — have criminalized homosexuality. All of them established those laws after being colonized by Europeans. And most of them currently justify those laws by saying that homosexuality isn’t part of their culture, that it was brought to them by Europeans. Aside from some really old, kinda kinky rock art, Mwanga II is some of the best proof against that claim. Also, is it just me or could Chadwick Boseman totally play him in a movie?