Throughout her life, Ruth Charlotte Ellis from Detroit was an advocate of the rights of gays and lesbians, and of African Americans. Becoming widely known as the oldest surviving open lesbian at age 101 in America, Ellis came out as a lesbian around 1915. That was quite a dangerous thing for anyone to do at the time, especially for a Black woman. But she was one who was never afraid of being herself.
“I never thought about hiding who I was,” she said in a 1999 interview. “I guess I didn’t go around telling everybody I was a lesbian, but I wasn’t lying about it either. If anyone asked me, I’d tell them the truth, but it wasn’t the sort of thing people talked about much.”
Born in 1899 in Springfield, Illinois, Ellis graduated from Springfield High School in 1919, at a time when fewer than seven percent of African Americans graduated from secondary school. She loved music and enjoyed dancing with her family. But in her teen years when her mother died, she became the only woman in her home. Living through some racial disturbances including the Springfield Riot of 1908, Ellis first realized that she was attracted to women when she fell in love with her gym teacher while in her teens. She said her father had no problem with her moving with women.
“He would say, ‘books and boys don’t go together.’ So I think he was kind of glad I was with women because that way I wouldn’t have a baby.’”
Still, Ellis did not know much about her sexuality until she came across a psychology book that taught her all she needed to know about “different types of people.”
In the 1920s, Ellis met Ceciline “Babe” Franklin and the two started a relationship. They moved to Detroit in 1937, where Ellis started the Ellis and Franklin Printing Company. According to reports, she became the first African-American woman to own an offset printing business in that city, printing fliers and posters and creating stationery out of her house on Oakland Avenue for churches and small businesses in Detroit.
Ellis and her partner’s house, which also became known as the “gay spot”, was a haven for LGBT African Americans in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. “For generations of African American gays and lesbians in the Midwest, their home provided an alternative to the bar scene that discriminated against blacks. It was a haven for African Americans who came ‘out’ before the Civil Rights Movement and Stonewall,” as pointed out by the documentary Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100.
The documentary by independent filmmaker Yvonne Welbon was released in 1999, the year Ellis became 100 years old. It focused on her life as an African-American lesbian centenarian and her fierce advocacy for the gay and lesbian communities, African Americans, and senior citizens.
At the time the documentary was released, Ellis had earned fame in her community and the U.S. as the oldest African-American lesbian in Michigan, and probably the nation, as she neared 100 years old. Besides being given several awards, many people loved her documentary and some sent her emails and letters commending her for being out and proud as an African-American lesbian.
That same year the documentary was made, some of her friends opened the Ruth Ellis Center named after her to provide “trauma-informed services for lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ+) youth, and young adults, with an emphasis on young people of color, experiencing homelessness, involved in the child welfare system, and/or experiencing barriers to health and wellbeing,” the Center says on its website.
LGBTQ activist Ellis died in her sleep at her home on October 5, 2000. She was 101.