William Dorsey Swann
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Swann was born to enslaved parents, Mary Jane Younker and Andrew Jackson Swann, and was the fifth of thirteen children in his family. There is also some evidence to suggest that his biological father may have been a white man. Swann's mother and all of her children were the legal property of Ann Murray, a white woman who was also Swann's godmother. While Jack and Mary Jane were both Protestants, Murray saw to it that their children were baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church.
During the Civil War, the Younker/Swann family resided in Hancock, Maryland, a port town near the Mason-Dixon line with divided loyalties between the free North and the slaveholding South. The war significantly impacted their living conditions, with food scarcity and soldiers damaging buildings and crops. However, the family persevered and celebrated holidays with songs and dances. Swann learned the importance of unity, self-sacrifice, and joy in the face of adversity from these experiences. His mother's role as the matriarch of a large, loving household deeply influenced him.
After the Civil War, Swann's parents, Mary Jane and Jack, stayed in Washington County and established their own farm. Swann, similar to many formerly enslaved children, did not attend school, as they were expected to find work to help support their families. William initially found employment as a hotel waiter.
In the latter half of the 1880s, he moved to Washington, D.C., to find better-paying work to support his family. There, he found employment as a janitor at a local business college, where he practiced reading and writing in his free time. Swann sent money back to his family from his earnings. His employers, Henry and Sara Spencer, praised him as “industrious,” “refined,” and “courteous,” with a “sensitive nature.”
Easily making friends and allies, Swann formed connections with several young Black men who, like him, sought companionship, romance, and desire with others of the same sex. Same-sex attraction was heavily taboo during the 1880s, making it challenging to express such feelings openly.
The earliest meetings of Swann's drag queen group remain shrouded in mystery, though they are believed to have begun by September 1882, the same month that Swann was arrested and charged with stealing plates, silverware, and other party supplies from the home of his employer, the head of the Spencerian Business College. It's been speculated that the stolen items were intended for use at Swann's drag events.
Swann started hosting secret gatherings called “drags,” which possibly derived from “grand rag,” an old term for a masquerade ball. Most of Swann's guests were formerly enslaved men who worked as servants to Washington's elite. The events featured food, drink, folk songs, and popular dances like the cakewalk, a competition where the best dancer won a cake as a prize. Attendees wore silk dresses, corsets, bustles, long hose, slippers, and other elements of women's attire.
The drag balls were not just a form of entertainment and social gathering, but also served as a means of survival for the queer community in Washington, D.C.. During this time, many queer people faced poverty and homelessness, and the balls provided a space for them to come together, celebrate their identities, and support each other.
Swann likely drew inspiration from the “queens” featured in Washington, D.C.'s Emancipation Day parade, adopting the title of “queen” among his queer friends. Although costume balls and crossdressing events have a lengthy history, Swann is the earliest documented individual recognized as a “queen” presiding over a crossdressing ball. As the “queen” of the drag, or more commonly referred to as a “drag queen,” Swann held a highly respected position within the queer community, reflecting his prominent role and influence.
By 1887, the group had garnered significant attention from local law enforcement, and those who attended the drag balls risked their freedom, livelihoods, and reputations. In April 1888, during a police raid, Swann reportedly physically confronted officers at the door, allowing other attendees to escape through windows in one of the earliest known instances of forceful resistance to police targeting the queer community. In 1896, Swann faced a significant setback when he was convicted on a false charge of “keeping a disorderly house,” which was a euphemism for running a house of prostitution. Although the charge was baseless, the prosecutor acknowledged that it was imposed as punishment for Swann's sexual relationships with other men and his “evil example in the community.” During the trial, the judge expressed his regret for not being able to impose a ten-year sentence, telling Swann: “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” (Evening Star, 13 Jan. 1896). Swann received a ten-month sentence as a result of this conviction.
Outraged by this injustice, Swann demanded a pardon from President Grover Cleveland, making him the first-known American activist to take legal action in defense of the queer community. However, despite poor jail conditions threatening Swann's life and a petition signed by thirty D.C. residents demanding his release, President Cleveland denied the pardon request.
Standing strong in the face of adversity, Swann and his group continued to defy authorities, becoming the earliest known queer resistance organization. Swann organized protests against police harassment and violence towards queer people and was part of a broader network of LGBTQ+ activists who fought for queer people's civil rights in the early 20th century.
Swann eventually returned home to Hancock, where he passed away in 1925. After his death, officials in the town of Hancock burned his home, destroying his papers and other artifacts. Despite that loss, efforts have been made to honor his legacy. In 2019, a plaque was unveiled in Washington, D.C., recognizing William Dorsey Swann as a “courageous leader who fought for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community in the face of discrimination and persecution.” In 2023, the Washington, D.C. Council also approved a bill designating Swann Street, N.W., near Dupont Circle in his honor.The commemorative sign describing the historic significance of William Dorsey Swann was installed at the intersection of Swann Street, New Hampshire Avenue, and 17th Street, N.W.
After Swann stepped back from the balls after his prison term, his legacy was honored and lived on through the actions of his younger brother Daniel, a talented tailor. Daniel continued to actively participate in the drag scene, using his skills to create stunning clothing that empowered and enabled the local drag community to flourish and evolve. The influence of Swann's early gatherings is still felt in today's houses of ballroom culture. These modern groups, led by “queens” and “mothers” who officiate beauty and dance competitions, maintain a similar structure and sense of community to Swann's 19th-century group, demonstrating the lasting impact of his pioneering work in the LGBTQ+ community.
- Joseph, C. G. Swann, William Dorsey (Mar. 1860–c. 23 Dec. 1925), drag queen, activist, and leader of an early Black queer organization. The African American Studies Center, Oxford University Press, 15 May 2021.
- Joseph, C. G. The first drag queen was a former slave who fought for queer freedom a century before Stonewall. The Nation, 31 January 2020.
- Currie, N. William Dorsey Swann, the Queen of Drag. Rediscovering Black History, The National Archives, 29 June 2020.
- Petrovnia, A. Let’s Talk About William Dorsey Swann, the slave who became a Queen. Medium, 17 March 2021.
- Chibbaro, L. Bill calls for designating D.C. street in honor of gay former slave. Washington Blade, 28 March 2023.
- Chibbaro, L. Swann Street designation approved.” Washington Blade, 5 April 2023.
- Grablick, C. Dupont Residents Push To Dedicate Swann Street After William Dorsey Swann, The First Self-Described ‘Queen Of Drag’. DCIST, 15 July 2022.