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 an 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.
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 ’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.
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