Ruth Ellis, born in Springfield, Illinois in 1899, is history’s longest-surviving out lesbian. Her life spanned over three centuries, watching major events in US history such as the Springfield riots of 1908 and the Detroit Riot of 1967. She was a fierce activist for LGBTQ+ rights in America, and her legacy lives on today in the Ruth Ellis Centre. The organisation provides social services for runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ+ youth.
She was raised in Springfield by her parents Carrie Ellis and Charles Ellis Sr., who were conceived in the last years of slavery. Her father, Charles, was the first African American mail carrier in Illinois, while her mother, Carrie, unfortunately, died when Ruth was only a teenager. Her childhood and adolescence were enshrined with both oppression and opportunity. Undoubtedly so, Ruth Ellis took advantage of every opportunity that came her way, leaving a lasting mark on the world.
She grew up in an integrated neighbourhood, though her family were still discriminated against, being denied entry into many town facilities. Despite this, Ellis graduated from high school and moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1938. Originally trying factory work, she found that her skills were suited to typesetting. She used her knowledge of the printing press to set up the first off-set printing business owned by an African-American woman in the city.
The enterprise produced various items for local businesses and organisations, such as raffle tickets, letterhead, and posters. Her business, Ellis & Franklin Printing Co., flourished in a time when African-American women owned less than 1% of businesses in Detroit.
Ruth Ellis ran the company with her partner of 34 years, Ceciline ‘Babe’ Franklin, who she had originally moved to Detroit with. The home that they shared soon became a haven for Black LGBTQ+ people, who had sparse social venues at which to meet. At her home, soon to be dubbed the “Gay Spot,” people gathered from all around the region to sing, dance and play cards. She was renowned within the community for her generosity, giving what she could to those in need. She bought books and food and even assisted with the payment of college tuition for those she helped. Most of all, she was beloved for her energetic dancing.
Her love of dance was outlined in the award-winning documentary Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis at 100. In the film, Dr Kofi Adoma recalled how she first met Ruth at a party, saying that she “looked in there, and there must’ve been at least 200 people on the floor doing the electric slide. Ruth was in front, leading the pack, not missing a step, not missing a beat.”
Another interviewee, Carolyn Lejuste, recalled a similar story, saying, “I asked her how she can do this (dancing) you know, ‘How can you do this Ruth, do you not get tired?’ She said, ‘Well I can sleep, you girls have to get up and go to work the next day, and I’ll just sleep for the next two days.’”
Ellis passed away in her sleep in October 2000, at the age of 101. The long life that she led is undoubtedly an inspiration to the amazing trailblazing lesbians that came after her. Her ashes were spread in special places at the Womyn’s Festival, an annual feminist music festival held annually in Michigan. Some of her ashes crossed the ocean to be spread in the sea in Ghana.
Dr Kofi Adoma succinctly described the power behind the work that Ellis accomplished in her life, saying, “Ruth is a gift to us; in that, she has come out to the world. In doing so, she’s been able to share what it’s like to experience triple oppression, being a woman, being black and being a lesbian. We can learn how to appreciate the progress that we have made, but also recognise the work that we still need to do. Ruth is a reminder of all of that.”
Reflecting the late woman’s values, the Ruth Ellis Centre, founded in 1999, provides informed services for LGBTQ+ youth. It emphasises its commitment to people of colour, those experiencing homelessness or in the child-welfare system. Its mission is to create opportunities for the young people they serve, ensuring them a brighter future. The centre is home to various vital services, such as a health and wellness centre, a drop-in facility, housing support as well as education programmes for HIV prevention.
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