Ruth Charlotte Ellis: Businesswoman and Activist
Pioneer. Trailblazer. Activist. These titles are usually reserved for those who effect lasting changes on people’s lives. They also describe Ruth Charlotte Ellis.
At the turn of the 20th century, it was almost unheard of for an African-American woman to graduate from high school or publicly come out as a lesbian, much more change people’s lives.
But change people’s lives is exactly what Ruth did, quietly at first and then loudly when she became an activist in her later years.
She never imagined that she would live to be a hundred years old, let alone become an advocate for those who lived at the margins of a society that often overlooked, denied or even violated their rights.
African-Americans, senior citizens, gay and lesbian communities– Ruth lived and spoke in behalf of them all with a legacy that continues to uplift even today.
Ruth Charlotte Ellis’ early life
Ellis was born on July 23, 1899 in Springfield, Illinois, to Charlie Ellis and Carrie Farro Ellis.
Turmoil and conflict were familiar to Ruth as she lived in a time of unrest and riots, decades before the African-American civil rights movement.
She had no female role models, having lost her mother at an early age. Fortunately for Ruth, her father, a self-educated man who valued learning highly, bought her a book that allowed her to understand herself as a woman.
She came out as a lesbian in 1915 and earned her high school diploma in 1919, no small feat at a time when only seven percent of African-Americans graduated from high school.
Her youthful tenacity proved valuable in her later years as an entrepreneur when she became the first African-American woman to own an off-set printing business in Detroit
It was also there that she moved together with her girlfriend, Ceciline “Babe” Franklin. They stayed together for thirty years.
Ruth Charlotte Ellis & her community
The home of Ruth and Babe evolved into a gathering place for parties. It became known as a “gay spot” and a safe space for African-American gays and lesbians.
In the 1970s, Ruth was involved in a much larger lesbian community through an unexpected acquaintance.
Ruth had signed up for a self-defense class, and it was her teacher, Jay Spiro, who introduced her to a lesbian feminist community in Detroit.
Through this community, Ruth assisted those who came to her. For example, she helped gays and lesbians of color trace their history, and recommended a variation of the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program.
This program had younger gays and lesbians matched with more senior gay and lesbian mentors based on similar interests.
Ruth Charlotte Ellis’ legacy
Ruth passed away in her home on October 5, 2009 at 101 years old.
But before she died, filmmaker Yvonne Welbon traced her life and the history of the African-American gay rights movement in the 1999 documentary Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @100.
Likewise, there is now a Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit that honors and continues Ruth’s work.
The center provides “short-term and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.”
In 2013, Ruth was inducted into the Chicago Legacy Project, the only Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in the world that memorializes the contributions of LGBT citizens to the city and to the LGBT community as a whole.