LGBT Rights Activist
July 23, 1899 – October 5, 2000
Ruth Ellis, matriarch of African American lesbians has passed on at the age of 101, leaving a legacy of optimism, modesty and humor. Openly lesbian since 1915, Ruth Ellis made a declaration of her love of women and of life – and lived these as truths until her last days.
Ellis’ mother died when she was a teen. She came out as a lesbian around 1915, and graduated from Springfield High School in 1919, at a time when fewer than seven percent of African Americans graduated from secondary school.
Her exceptional longevity ran a long course of events that were no less exceptional. She was among the few black women of her generation to obtain a high school education. Her father was never a lesbophobe: “[He] always let me have girlfriends. My lesbianism reassured him. He had a way of saying that boys and books do not make for a good match.”
In the 1920s, she met the only woman she ever lived with, Ceciline “Babe” Franklin. They moved together to Detroit, Michigan in 1937 where Ellis became the first American woman to own a printing business in that city. She made a living printing stationery, fliers, and posters out of her house.
In 1937, Ruth became the first American woman to own a printing business in Northwestern Detroit. She also taught herself photography and hand-colored painting. For generations of African American gays and lesbians, the home of Ruth and Babe, her life-long partner, was known as the “gay spot” — “a refuge to African Americans who came ‘out’ before the civil rights movement and Stonewall.” Those who were victims of double discrimination, racism and homophobia, found themselves at home chez Ruth and Babe.
Throughout her life, Ruth Ellis was an advocate for the rights of gays and lesbians, as well as for the rights of African Americans. Affected by the loss of Babe, who died at the beginning of the 1970’s, Ruth Ellis nevertheless started a new life as she approached 80 years. She became an advocate in the U.S. lesbian/gay community, and in particular for lesbians of colour researching their history and their roots. She took some courses in self-defense, made some new friends, including Jaye Spiro [a lesbian self-defense teacher], who was among the first white friends in her growing community. She went out to the bars, attended concerts, made a tour of lesbian events. Among the participants at the annual Michigan Women’s Music Festival in August 1999, thousands of women got to see her celebrating her 100th year, dancing on the night stage; hundreds attended the showing of her film, Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100, which retraces her life and history and is told in conjunction with some U.S. history as well. Two months before her passing, she travelled again, participating in conferences, and never ceasing to give messages of optimism and of hope.
What energy she had — this amazing woman (small – only 4’8″ – but with such character!) who answered with a mischievous smile when questioned about the place where she met women in her youth: in church! She liked to say that she seduced women for nearly a hundred years. In the end, she said that she had done everything that she wanted to do here and that she appreciated the love the community had given her, but she was just tired.
Ruth Ellis leaves an immense legacy.
According to Dr Kofi Adoma, Detroit psychologist and known gay rights activist, elders hold a particular place of respect in the African American community. “She’s one of our elders. She’s able to bring our history to us and is such a symbol and a reminder that if she can live openly as a Lesbian, we can, too.”
By being an out black lesbian, Ruth Ellis became a role model, a figure at the forefront of black, lesbian, and senior pride and, directly or indirectly, the source at the root of several projects for support to seniors, as well as to the African American, gay and lesbian communities. The Ruth Ellis Center, for example, is a space for shelter and aid for gay/ lesbian/ bisexual / transgendered youth who have run away or are without shelter in Detroit or in southeastern Michigan. She was also advocating for an organization for gay and lesbian seniors as a sort of Big Brother/Big Sister program in reverse: younger gays and lesbians would be partnered with seniors according to interests. “The Ellis affair” [held in Washington, DC in May 1999] was one of numerous activities held as part of Black Lesbian & Gay Pride Day, which was created to celebrate the black gay experience and raise money for local AIDS service organizations.
Ruth Ellis is an inspiration. Those who bear witness to her life find a rare opportunity to perceive a sense of experience and connection with a century-long history of African American gays and lesbians through the life lived by one inspiring woman. Those who knew of her life and deeds cannot help but remember her as someone who made a lasting impression, one of the true icons of lesbian history.