This June, a lot of Pride month has focused on Black members of the LGBTQ community. From the very beginning of the Gay Rights movement, Black and other brown folks have been on the frontlines of the fight. There are countless stories to tell, but there is one you’ve probably never heard. Ruth Ellis lived to be 101 and was not just an out lesbian, but a beacon for the community.
Ruth Ellis was born in 1899 in Springfield, Illinois. Her father, Charles Ellis, was the first Black mail carrier in the entire state of Illinois. Her mother died when she was a tween, leaving her with her father and brothers. At the age of 16, after realizing that she had feelings for her white gym teacher, Ellis read Radclyffe Hall’s book The Well of Loneliness. After reading the book, she looked up the term “homosexual” in a psychology book. And that’s how she realized she was a lesbian. Being out isn’t easy at any point in history, but in 1915? It’s not like she had much for frame of reference. Despite that, however, Ellis always lived her life as an out lesbian.
Even when living at home with her father and siblings, she had girlfriends over. “Nothing ever happened,” she explained in an interview.
“Except one night I had this girlfriend stay, and we made a little too much noise. The only thing my father ever said to me was, ‘Next time you girls make that much noise, I will put you both out.’”
While still living in Springfield, Ruth Ellis met Ceciline “Babe” Franklin, who was 10 years younger than her. There wasn’t much opportunity for a Black lesbian woman in Springfield back in the 1930s, so Ellis’s brother told her about Detroit. She went first, finding a job caring for a young boy for $7 a week. Franklin joined her in Detroit about a year later. Ellis, who had previously worked for a Black-owned print shop back in Springfield, decided to open her own print shop in Detroit.
“I was working for a printer, and I said to myself if I can do this for him, how come I can’t do it for myself?” she said.
With the formation of Ellis & Franklin Printing Co, which they ran out of their home, Ruth Ellis became the first woman in Michigan to own her own printing company. And that’s not the only thing that ran out of the Ellis/Franklin home.
Back in the 1940s, there weren’t many places for LGBTQ people to gather. In a pre-Stonewall world, being queer was life-threatening, so many people had to meet in private. And there was even less space in the community for Black queer people, so Ellis and Franklin opened up their home as a spot for them as a safe space. Their home was known as “The Giving Spot,” and was open for any members of the LGBTQ community, especially youth and Black folks.
“In those days everything was hush hush,” she explained. “If you just knew somebody that had a home would accept you that is where you went. So after we bought our home, we opened it up to the gay people. That is where everyone wanted to come on the weekend.”
Throughout the ’40s and until the ’60s, The Giving Spot was the spot for Black queers in Detroit. This was an opportunity for Ruth Ellis to create a sense of community that was lacking in her youth. As an elder in the community, she knew that providing a safe space for younger queer people could quite actually save their lives. Their house was a meeting place — people could just be themselves, play cards, dance, and have barbecues in the summer.
“They would just come and hang out. We’d have a nice time dancing. Some of them played piano and sang. They’d bring drinks. And we’d have food. We’d just have fun.”
But providing a fun space to gather wasn’t all that Ruth Ellis did. For those young folks struggling, she took care of them by giving them emotional support and helping them financially. She was known to help students buy books and even paid college tuitions if she was able.
In the 1960s, Ruth Ellis and Babe Franklin ended their relationship. They were together for over 30 years, which is a long time, especially for lesbian women back then. “I don’t think it was love,” Ellis said once in an interview. “(But) she was good for me. She taught me how to take care of myself.” Even though their relationship ended, the two women stayed friends. Franklin moved to a different part of town to be closer to work, and Ellis chose to live in a senior living facility.
By now, the Gay Rights movement was finally coming to the forefront. With the Stonewall Riots in 1969, LGBTQ people were finally fed up with having to live their lives in the shadows. Fighting for their right to be treated as equals was their driving force. And even though Ruth Ellis had been living her life as an out lesbian the whole time before, it wasn’t until after 1969 that people outside of Detroit learned of who she was. In her 70s, she became a queer icon and celebrity among the LGBTQ community, and for good reason.
“All of my grandparents died relatively young, so I looked at Ruth like the grandmother I wanted to have in my life,” said Sarah Uhle, who became friends with Ellis when she was in her 30s and Ellis in her 80s.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Ellis made a steady stream of appearances and did lots of interviews. Everyone knows that lesbians have always existed, but to see a woman who had been living as an out lesbian since before World War 1? That’s unbelievable. Especially because that woman was Black. And not only was she an out lesbian, she was a business owner and mentor to the community. She became a permanent fixture at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as a result.
Ellis’s status as the oldest living out Black lesbian was immortalized in a documentary about her life, Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100. Of course, this only brought her more attention and notoriety. On her 100th birthday in 1999, Ruth Ellis was the leader of San Francisco’s Dyke March, with the entire crowd singing “Happy Birthday” to her. The same year, she lent her name and her legacy to the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit.
The Ruth Ellis Center provides a safe space for LGBTQ youth. “From providing outreach and safety-net services, to skill-building workshops and HIV prevention programs, we are known for our unique approach,” reads the Center’s description on their website. Just because she got older didn’t mean that Ellis forgot how important it was to be a source of safety for queer youth. Kids who identify as LBGTQ are some of the most vulnerable, and Ellis knew that.
“That’s what we try to teach some of the kids at the Ruth Ellis Center also. Be who you are, love yourself, respect yourself, and at the same time realize that you still live in a society that has yet to embrace our existence unfortunately,” says Kofi Adoma, co-founder of the Ruth Ellis Center and a longtime friend of Ellis’s.
Ruth Ellis died shortly after her 101st birthday. At a time where living her life had deadly consequences, never once did she waver from her beliefs. She lived a long life out and proud, and more of us should know who she is. Because she is the epitome of a queer icon.
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