Loretta Mary Aiken (March 19, 1894 – May 23, 1975), known by her stage name Jackie “Moms” Mabley, was an American standup comedian. A veteran of the Chitlin’ Circuit of African-American vaudeville, she later appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Loretta Mary Aiken was born in Brevard, North Carolina on March 19, 1894 to James Aiken and Mary Smith, who married on May 21, 1891, in Transylvania County, North Carolina. She was one of a family of 16 children. Her father owned and operated several successful businesses, while her mother kept house and took in boarders. While working as a volunteer fireman in 1909, her father died when a fire engine exploded. Loretta was 15. In 1910, her mother took over their primary business, a general store. She was killed after being run over by a truck while returning home from church on Christmas Day.
By age 14, Loretta had been raped twice (at age 11, by an elderly black man, and age 13, by a white sheriff) and had two children who were given up for adoption. At the encouragement of her grandmother, Loretta ran away to Cleveland, Ohio, joining a traveling vaudeville-style minstrel show starring Butterbeans and Susie, where she sang and entertained.
Loretta Aiken took her stage name, Jackie Mabley, from an early boyfriend, commenting to Ebony in a 1970s interview that he had taken so much from her, it was the least she could do to take his name. Later she became known as “Moms” because she was indeed a “Mom” to many other comedians on the circuit in the 1950s and 1960s.
She came out as a lesbian at the age of twenty-seven, becoming one of the first openly gay comedians. During the 1920s and 1930s she appeared in androgynous clothing (as she did in the film version of The Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson) and recorded several of her early “lesbian stand-up” routines.