Buried in the Black Belt: A Biographical Sketch of a Lesbian in the New South

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:40 AM
Balcony I (New Orleans Marriott)
Mollie Beth Wallace, University of Alabama
My paper will survey Mary Amelia’s biography—as revealed in her notes and in oral histories of family members, friends, and Eutaw citizens—and analyze how new socioeconomic opportunities in the New South affected her sexuality.

Born into a poor, white family in 1916, Mary grew up working in the fields with her family from dawn to dusk and worshipping in the Presbyterian church across the pasture on the seventh day. Then new opportunity came: across the first quarter of the twentieth century textile mills and other industry emerged in this once rural landscape. When she reached the age of 15, Mary got a job in one. This new environment lent Mary—and many of her contemporaries—greater socioeconomic mobility. Mary used this mobility to challenge ‘traditional’ sexual mores. She expressed her burgeoning sexuality, dressing “like a man”: a “short” haircut, a Zoot suit, a handgun often stashed in her pocket. She courted young women—first in towns where no one knew her and, eventually, in the shadows of Eutaw.

What followed across the long remainder of her life was (for her) haunting, liberating, and in the worst moments, damning. Mary Amelia became a contradiction to the very Reformed theology that permeated the spiritual universe she and her family experienced (put another way, the kind of universe they believed they experienced). As seen through annotations in her Bible (a kind of lay exegesis), she struggled to “justify” her “sin,” her sexual orientation. There were times when Mary felt free; however, with age her freedom receded and she failed to reconcile her definition of herself with a wrathful God who would have her in the end. She concealed her sexuality from her closest family members, who gave younger generations no explanation for why Mary “dressed like a man.”

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