Ruth Ellis (activist)

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Ruth Ellis
Ellis in 1951
Ruth Charlotte Ellis

(1899-07-23)July 23, 1899
DiedOctober 5, 2000(2000-10-05) (aged 101)
EducationSpringfield High School
LGBT activist
Years active1937–2000

Ruth Charlotte Ellis (July 23, 1899 – October 5, 2000) was an African-American woman known for being an LGBT rights activist and the oldest surviving open lesbian at the age of 101. Her life is celebrated in Yvonne Welbon's documentary film Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100.[1]

Early life[edit]

Ellis was born in Springfield, Illinois, on July 23, 1899. She was the youngest of four children in the family and the only daughter. Her parents were born in the last years of slavery in Tennessee. Ellis' mother, Carrie Farro Ellis, died when she was a teen, while her father, Charles Ellis Sr., was the first African American mail carrier in Illinois.[2][3]

Ellis became open about her identity as a lesbian around 1915, but claims to never have had to come out, as her family was accepting.[2][4] She graduated from Springfield High School in 1919, at a time when fewer than seven percent of African Americans graduated from secondary school. In the 1920s, she met the only woman she ever lived with, Ceciline "Babe" Franklin. They moved together to Detroit, Michigan, in 1937.


Ellis spent her days[when?] working for a printing company, but moved to Detroit in 1937 to babysit a young boy in Highland Park. Encouraged by the promise of better wages, she worked for $7.00 a week, which amounts to $125.62 today.[when?] However, she soon put the knowledge she had of the printing press, which she had picked up in Springfield, to work and secure a position with Waterfield and Heath, where she worked until opening her own press out of the West Side home she shared with Franklin.[2][5] Her printing business, the Ellis & Franklin Printing Co., was the first woman-owned printing shop in the state of Michigan.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Her hobbies included dancing, bowling, painting, playing piano, and photography.[4] Ellis and Franklin's house was also known in the African American community as the "gay spot."[citation needed] It was a central location for gay and lesbian parties, and also served as a refuge for African American gays and lesbians. She would continue to support those who needed books, food, or assistance with college tuition.[2] Throughout her life, Ellis was an advocate of the rights of gays and lesbians, and of African Americans. Soon after her 70th birthday, due to her fame within the community, Ellis would become a staple at the "Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival".

On her 100th birthday, she led and was sung Happy Birthday to You by the San Francisco’s Dyke March of 1999. Although Ellis and Franklin eventually separated, they were together for more than 30 years. Franklin died in 1973 from a heart attack on her way to work.[7][5]


Ellis was hospitalized for two weeks with heart problems, but wanted to spend her last days at home. Ellis died in her sleep in the early morning hours of October 5, 2000. Her ashes were spread in the following Womyn's festival and into the Atlantic Ocean off of Ghana.[2]

Ruth Ellis Center[edit]

The Ruth Ellis Center honors the life and work of Ruth Ellis and is one of only four agencies in the United States dedicated to homeless LGBT youth and young adults. Among their services are a drop-in center, supportive housing programs, and an integrated Health and Wellness Center that provides medical and mental health care.

Tributes and accomplishments[edit]

Her age did not slow her accomplishments, as her 100th birthday drew near, Ellis was being recognized in many major LGBT publications across the country, right as her documentary-like movie was coming out, "Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100." The film won several top honors at different major film festivals. In 2009, she was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame.[3] In 2013, she was inducted into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people.[8]

Ellis was also the oldest contributor to Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology. She was interviewed by poet and activist Terri L. Jewell about 1989/1990.[9][10]


  1. ^ Yvonne Welbon (April 2, 2006). "Sisters in the Life!". Our Film Works. Archived from the original on February 19, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-09.
  2. ^ a b c d e Heath, Terrance (2019-02-13). "Over the course of 101 years, the nation's longest-lived lesbian was always out & proud". Retrieved 2019-07-22.
  3. ^ a b "First African-American mail carrier". The Sangamon County Historical Society. 2019-06-19. Retrieved 2019-07-22.
  4. ^ a b "Ruth Ellis, lesbian activist". SangamonLink. 2019-06-19. Retrieved 2019-07-22.
  5. ^ a b Michael, J. A. (October 10, 2009). "Reflecting on Ruth". Between the Lines. Retrieved 2019-11-07.
  6. ^ "Meet the Presses: Ruth Ellis, Detroit printer and Black LGBTQ icon". Letterpress Play. 29 July 2020. Retrieved 3 March 2022.
  7. ^ Kathleen Wilkinson (October 9, 2000). "Ruth Ellis". Curve Magazine. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2008-02-09.
  8. ^ Victor Salvo // The Legacy Project. "2012 INDUCTEES". Retrieved 29 November 2014.
  9. ^ Terri L. Jewell (1992). Silvera, Makeda (ed.). Piece of my heart: a lesbian of colour anthology : anthologized by Makeda Silvera. Sister Vision. pp. 149–154. ISBN 978-0-920813-65-2. OCLC 1154306488. Retrieved 30 May 2021.
  10. ^ King, Adrienne (February 2020). "Happy Birthday, Ruth Ellis". ArcGIS StoryMaps. Archives and Black Digital Studies. Retrieved 30 May 2021.

External links[edit]