MultiSession Queer Souths, Part 4: Mary Amelia’s World: Queer Sexuality in the Alabama Black Belt, 1730–2005

AHA Session 150
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 9
Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Balcony I (New Orleans Marriott)
Leisa D. Meyer, College of William and Mary
Grey Gundaker, College of William and Mary

Session Abstract

This panel explores the evolution of sexuality in a particular place—a farm in Eutaw, Alabama—in the Black Belt from the colonial era to the modern. Though crossing all of this time, these essays are bound together by, and rooted in, place: Indian landscape gives way to a cotton plantation, and finally a rural landscape occupied by one doublewide.

Mary Amelia Leavelle’s (1916–2005) family had lived at the same crossroads in the Eutaw countryside since before the Civil War, when they—harnessing the forced labor of black slaves—operated a cotton plantation. The ruins of the ‘Big House’ lie beneath Mary’s doublewide; the Presbyterian churchyard where Mary and her ancestors worshiped is across the pasture, its cracked tombstones jutting up in the otherwise ghostly landscape. Mary’s bones are there, buried like all of the other things she had hidden: when she died of a stroke (2005), she left photographs of the women she had sex with hidden underneath the lining of her dresser drawers, writings scribbled in their margins.

Mary beheld and internalized pieces of her family history. She felt the “shame” of “squandered family wealth” (her family fell toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder during the Reconstruction years). She learned to speak like her black relatives (a kinship originating in the plantation days). She was a devout Presbyterian—this explains the exegetical attempts to reconcile her perceived “sexual sins” scribbled into the margins of her Bible she also kept hidden. Indeed, she wrestled with this problem of otherness because it faced her across life, in the cotton fields where she picked, in the mill where she worked, and in the church where she worshiped.

While there has been an explosion of scholarship on queer sexual history across the past two decades, the South, and especially the Deep South, remains unexplained. The most recent works that seek to fill this gap, John Howard’s Men Like That and E. Patrick Johnson’s Sweet Tea, point to how much still remains to be discovered on southern sexual systems and sexualities. There has been a particular lack of attention to lesbian lives historically in this region—though this invisibility has in part been a product of the lack of sources to reconstruct those lives. Thanks to a wealth of documents recently discovered in Mary’s doublewide, there is now an opportunity to begin a reconstruction. There is opportunity to construct a longue durée view of the sexual history of a fascinating—and deeply troubled—southern place.


  • Chase Wallace’s paper explores the ways Mary’s sexuality was intertwined with a culturally layered place, interwoven with the Black Belt landscape and the southern cultures that had evolved in it across the colonial and antebellum eras.


  • Laurel Daen’s paper explores Mary’s photographs. Drawing on techniques of visual analysis, it asks what these sources can tell us about performances of gender and sexuality in the New South.


  • Mollie Beth Wallace’s paper explores Mary’s biography, and analyzes how the emergence of the New South affected Mary’s sexual life.
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