Anita Cornwell had been an out lesbian for more than two decades when Stonewall happened. She had wandered the small streets of Greenwich Village in the 1940s-1950s and had written about her experiences in The Ladder, where she was the first black lesbian to write for the publication. She also wrote about her experiences as a black woman in Negro Digest.
Negro Digest boldly referred to her as a lesbian — groundbreaking in the 1950s. Cornwell was one of the first black lesbian activists many Philadelphia LGBTQ people knew of in the early years, pre-Stonewall. Her presence was a constant over several decades at LGBTQ events.
In her iconic book Black Lesbian in White America, widely noted as the first collection of essays by a black lesbian, Cornwell writes, “During that time, about the only visible Gays were the swaggering butch and the swishing faggot, who were about as welcome in that ‘genteel’ climate of the fifties as a grizzly bear. In fact, I do believe the bear would have had a decided advantage.” She said of lesbians of her era, “We of the fifties (and the forties and on back to when) not only had to operate from the closet but, worse yet, most of us seemed to exist in a vacuum.”
A defiantly staunch feminist and, for a period of time, a lesbian separatist, Cornwell infused her politics into every local and national group to which she belonged. Hers were fierce and seductive politics, framed in a folksy, witty, charming banter that casually insinuated itself into the conversation until everyone was listening only to Anita Cornwell.
No one else was talking, and so she told the complex tale of being a black lesbian in white America. Cornwell was, above all, a raconteur. She told stories from every chapter of her life and every decade of gay and lesbian life. She was a chronicler of her time. And when she spoke, everyone listened.
The population of Greenwood, South Carolina was only 8,700 in 1923 when Cornwell was born there. A third of the population was black, but it was the height of Jim Crow laws and as Cornwell recounted in interviews, it was a time of tremendous poverty fueled by racism, “when integration was a term seen only in the dictionary.”
She told Philadelphia historian Marc Stein that there would have been no knowledge of gayness in that environment — that it was like another century. She said she first became aware she was attracted to women in her teens but didn’t come out until she met other lesbians after college in the late 1940s.
Her family moved to Yeadon, then Philadelphia, when Cornwell was 16 — after she had attended the New York World’s Fair in 1939 with her grandmother.
After graduating with a journalism degree from Temple University in 1948, Cornwell worked for local area newspapers, including the Philadelphia Tribune and the Bulletin. She wrote poetry and essays and published her work in a range of lesbian and feminist publications from 1950-80, among them Feminist Review, Labyrinth, Azalea: A Magazine by Third-World Lesbians and BLACK/OUT — which was published in Philadelphia and edited by Philadelphia gay poet Joe Beam.
Cornwell was a member of Daughters of Bilitis and one of the founding members of the Philadelphia chapter of Radicalesbians.
As Cornwell explained in an interview with Marc Stein, when she was 70, she became involved in lesbian-feminist politics right at the cusp of Stonewall. She said, “Black women have always been feminists. I mean that’s the only way we survived, that we were feminists. See a lot of people think being feminist means you hate men. And straight women hate men more. Most gay women are feminists, to some extent, I think. Well, naturally I was very interested in the women’s movement because that was the only movement that I saw that might include me.”
Philadelphia writer Becky Birtha wrote the foreword to Cornwell’s book, Black Lesbian in White America. She notes that the book offers an acute political analysis of both racial and sexual oppressions. Cornwell was writing about what wasn’t yet known. Her book includes an interview with Audre Lorde, who would become the best-known and most prolific black lesbian feminist essayist of the 20th century.
In her book, Cornwell elucidates how lesbians must address their internalized misogyny as well as their internalized homophobia. It was a revolutionary theory when she first explored it. She wrote, “The thing I find most disturbing regarding womyn in general is the seeming impossibility of their thinking clearly when it comes time to deal with men. Womyn with advanced university degrees often seem utterly unable to dot an i when they are confronted with the realities of man’s barbaric treatment of womyn. To put it bluntly, I find it absolutely terrifying to see just how effective men have been in eradicating womyn’s sense of self, a condition that seems to prevail in at least 90 percent of all womyn all over this male-infected globe.”
Racism was another crucial issue for Cornwell, and she found it embedded in the bar culture where, she said, “We went to one gay bar, which was called Rusty’s, and it was very prejudiced. I could tell they didn’t want us [black lesbians] there.”
Cornwell also addresses racism in the feminist movement but is slightly easier on women. She said, “See, you can’t live in a country that’s racist and not be affected in some manner or other. So naturally they had the same attitudes to some extent that the regular society had. But also there was some willingness to try to change to some extent. Of course there were varying degrees of success and non-success.”
For Cornwell, the focus of her activism always included women and lesbians. She lived most of her years in West Philly on the outskirt of the Penn campus in a series of communes with other women. She spent time at the Women’s Center and read her poetry and fiction throughout the city, at the gay community center and other venues.
Now 95, Cornwell has suffered from dementia for over a decade and lives in a stately nursing home in Germantown. Another longtime lesbian activist, Ahavia Lavana, lived in the same nursing home as Cornwell until she died in November 2018.
In 2011, Lavana posted on Cornwell’s Amazon page, “I have known the author for many years. Anita no longer remembers that she wrote this book, but I got her to sign my copy. She said she had never done this before. But I told her that she had signed many books. So she wrote her name and then thought a moment. Then she said ‘I’m a celebrate!’ I told her that she most certainly is a celebrate and gave her a hug. When she sees me, she knows I know her and smiles at me. Which delights me as mostly she just sits. This is a wonderful book and should be read by any feminist and lesbian.”