Ruth Ellis was an African-American LGBT civil rights activist who became the oldest known American lesbian when reaching the age of 101.
Ellis was born in 1899 in Springfield, Illinois. Her parents had been born in the last years of slavery, and her father would become the first African-American mail carrier in Illinois. Ellis and her three brothers were all able to graduate from high school. This was an especially rare feat for Ellis to accomplish, as it meant she became only one of 5% of African-American girls who were able to stay in school until graduation at the time. In 1908, Ellis experienced a race riot for the first time, and would forever remember the sight of her father protecting their home all night. These riots led to the formation of the NAACP.
At the age of 16, Ellis became aware of her sexual orientation when developing a crush on her high school gym teacher. At the age of 20, after dating a number of women, she met Cecilene “Babe” Franklin and the two became a devoted couple for many years. They settled in Detroit, where their home quickly became a safe space for African-American gay men and lesbians to meet from the 1940s through to the 1960s. It was known as “the gay spot” and people would gather there to play piano, sing, play cards and socialise. Ellis and Babe would also take in any homeless LGBT who had no where else to go and fought to raise enough money to send young LGBT people to college. Ellis ran a print shop from the store front below her home, becoming the first American woman to own a printing business in Detroit.
After 30 years together, Ellis and Babe parted ways and Ellis was introduced to the larger LGBT community by her friend Jaye Spiro, the first white lesbian she had ever met. Ellis began attending rallies for LGBT causes, speaking at events nationwide and mentoring dozens of women. She frequently attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and in 1999 she led the San Francisco Dyke March.
Ellis was celebrated in the documentary “Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100”, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in 1999. Just before Ellis’ death at the age of 101 (making her the oldest known out lesbian) she learned that the Ruth Ellis Center would be opened and named in her honour. The centre continues to act as. safe haven for runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBT youth and maintains that “no youth, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation is turned away or denied services.”
In 2013, in honour of her commitment to advocating for the civil rights of LGBT people and people of colour, Ruth Ellis was inducted into the Legacy Walk in Chicago, Illinois an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people.