“I never thought about hiding who I was, I guess I didn’t go around telling everybody I was a lesbian, but I wasn’t lying about it either.”
TRQ: Ruth Ellis, Born July 23, 1899
Activist Ruth Ellis, who lived openly as lesbian for over 85 years, was born on July 23, 1899 in Springfield, Illinois. She was the youngest of her siblings and the only daughter. Her father was the town’s first Black mail carrier.
One of the few African-Americans who received any kind of secondary education at the time, Ellis attended Springfield High School. At the age of 16 she became aware of her lesbian orientation when she realized she had a crush on her high school gym teacher.
Ellis once explained, “I used to fool around with girls and have them stay all night. One morning, my Daddy said, ‘Next time y’all make that much noise, I’m going to put you BOTH out.'”
She suspected that her father was somewhat relieved that his daughter was a lesbian. “I think [my father] was kind of glad that I had a woman instead of a man because he was afraid I’d come home with a baby . If you had a baby in those days, you’d have to leave home. And he wanted me home.”
In fact, homosexuality was never discussed in her family’s household, though Ellis thought her brother, a World War I veteran who never married, might also be gay.
In 1920, Ellis met Celine “Babe” Franklin, her life partner of more than 35 years. Working in a printing company, Ellis moved from Springfield to Detroit with Babe in the 1930’s to earn more money. She started working at the printing company Waterfield & Heath, but an inheritance from her brother Henry gave her enough money to start her own printing company from home.
The couple opened up their home to host parties for gays and lesbians, and even earned income from renting out spare rooms. Their home on Oakland Avenue became known locally as “the gay spot.” In actuality, people traveled from as far as Cleveland, Ohio and Flint, Michigan to be a part of the warm welcome of Ellis and Babe’s home.
“On weekends, that would be the place to come because there weren’t many places unless it was in someone’s home. So they’d come down, and we’d play the piano and dance, and some of them would play cards,” explained Ellis.
Ellis’s time of living with Babe came to an end when urban revitalisation pressured the couple to give up their home on Oakland Ave. After thirty years of living together, the two moved into separate apartments.
Ellis enrolled in a self-defence class taught by the first white lesbian she’d met, Jay Spiro. Spiro began introducing Ellis to younger generations of lesbians who “… took me to bars. We went from one bar to another,” according to Ellis. “Then it just kept snowballing.”
“She was our inspiration and our link to the past,” commented Kofi Adoma, who found Ellis to be both a friend and a role model. “When we listened to Ruth’s stories, we knew we should also be able to accomplish things and not have fear.”
More and more, Ellis grew to be one of the most admired and respected lgbtq+ members of the Detroit community, and beyond. She began attending and speaking at events hosted by community groups, school groups and university forums. She spoke at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and Michigan State University. Her message to each audience emphasised the importance of self pride and honesty.
“I was always out of the closet. I didn’t have to come out,” she would say.
In 1999, Ellis celebrated her hundredth birthday. Looking back, she said, “I never expected I’d be 100 years old. It didn’t even come to my mind.” That year, the documentary Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100, directed by Yvonne Welbon, won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Ellis traveled extensively to promote the documentary. Adoma also co-founded the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park, whose mission is to help homeless LGBTQ+ teens.
In late 2000, Ellis was hospitalised for heart problems. Choosing to spend her final days at home, Ellis was looked after by her friends until the morning of October 5. After a life lived in three centuries, she passed away at the age of 101.
Ellis was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame in 2009, and Chicago’s Legacy Walk in 2013.
Ellis spent most of her life in Detroit.