Alice Belton Lecture Series
[From the Spring, 1997 issue of The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Newsletter]
Alice Belton, 1934-1971
by Barbara Hoffman
Alice Belton's life was not one of great distinction or accomplishment, but it was far from ordinary. The daughter of Philadelphia's leading Negro orthodontist, she grew up in the 1940's in a world that was privileged, but at the same time narrowly confined by the pressures of race and class and color.
Alice's father expected her to be a role model for her race, but he did not want her to associate with people who were poor or darker-skinned, or who were white. His goals for her were clear: she would attend a prestigious black university, join an elite sorority, and, after graduation, marry a man of her own class and color and become a leader in the society in which she had been raised.
By her senior year in high school, Alice knew that she was lesbian, and that her father's dreams for her were not possible. She wanted to go to college in the North, to study engineering. When her father refused to allow this, she rebelled and joined the army.
Alice's army career was short and brutal. Within a year, the army suspected that she was lesbian. She was thrown into a cell, and interrogated night and day until she broke down, confessed to here sexuality and named others. She was then summarily dismissed with a dishonorable discharge.
Following her discharge from the army, Alice moved to Boston, to a job in a food processing plant, and later to a job at Polaroid, first on an assembly line and then as a supervisor. During this time, she attempted to establish a black identity, living in a black neighborhood and becoming involved in the civil rights movement, but throughout her life she felt she was an outsider in both the black and the white worlds. And, in this time long before Stonewall, she felt that she was an outsider in the straight world as well.
In 1963, Alice began attending Radcliffe, first as a part-time student through Polaroid's employee benefit program, and then, through scholarship help, as a full-time student. She finally graduated in 1969.
After her graduation, Alice considered starting the process to have her army discharge upgraded, but she never followed through on it. Nearly twenty years later, her army experience was still too painful for her to face. She had also hoped that finishing college would in some way make her life different and better, but this hope was not realized. She committed suicide in 1971.
The Alice Belton Series has been established in memory of her, to help us to remember how difficult a road some of us have walked, and to remind us that the pressures under which Alice lived, and which contributed to her death, are not matters of history. Somewhere, at this very moment, another young woman is being discharged from the military because she is lesbian. Racism, sexism and homophobia are living problems, still, in our society. We hope that honoring Alice Belton's life will strengthen us for the work, which remains to be done.