Ruth Ellis: A century worth of history

By |2018-01-16T17:18:21-05:00May 2nd, 2003|Uncategorized|

{ITAL For this year’s Black History Month we thought we’d take a look at a few of Detroit’s own trailblazers, past and present. These people have left their impact not only on Motown, or even on the state of Michigan, but echoes of their war cry have been heard across the country – and in some cases even farther.
No list of such legends would be complete without this first lady. Her name has been kept in great circulation thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Ruth Ellis Center, the groundbreaking youth shelter, transitional living and outreach program that continues her good works. But five years after she left us at age 101, we’re proud to present a look back at the legacy of Ruth Ellis.}
Ruth Charlotte Ellis wasn’t born in Detroit. Springfield, Ill. gets the honor of being able to call itself her birthplace. Born July 23, 1899, Ellis’ father was Springfield’s first black mail carrier. Her brothers Charles, Henry and Wellington all served in World War I before settling into professional careers. Ruth was working as a nursemaid earning $3 a week when her brother Charles, who had relocated to Detroit, urged her to follow him with the promise of better pay.
Ellis’ first job in Detroit was taking care of a little boy in Highland Park, for which she made $7 a week. In Springfield, Ellis had learned to set type and run a press from a neighbor. On days off from her nursemaid job, she looked for work in the printing field. It didn’t take long to find, and Ellis worked for Waterfield & Heath for nearly a decade. She quit only after her brother Henry, a doctor, died and left her enough money to start her own printing company, which she ran out of her home on Oakland Avenue.
That home was more than headquarters to a thriving printing enterprise, though. On weekends she opened it up to gays and lesbians who had few other safe entertainment options.
On occasion, Ellis would let some of the young people she befriended stay with her in the house, which she shared with her partner Ceciline “Babe” Franklin. She even helped put a few through college.
Eventually, Ellis was forced out of her home in the name of “urban revitalization.” Ellis moved to a retirement complex in downtown Detroit, while Franklin moved to an apartment in Southfield. They visited each other often until 1975, when Franklin had a heart attack on her way to work.
“I don’t think it was love,” Ellis said years later, reflecting on her 30-year relationship. “[But] she was good for me. She taught me how to take care of myself.”
Franklin obviously did a good job, for Ellis remained self-sufficient until she died. After retiring she built a new life for herself. She took up bowling and discovered photography, and she loved to travel.
In 1999, the year she turned 100, Ellis did perhaps more traveling than she had in the past decade. Filmmaker Yvonne Welbon turned Ellis’ story into a documentary, “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @100.” As the film continued to accumulate accolades, Ellis traveled across the country to help promote it.
That same year, a group of community activists gathered to lay the foundation for a shelter for homeless LGBT teens. They chose to call the program The Ruth Ellis Center in recognition of all the youth Ellis had helped through the years by so graciously opening up her doors. In September 2000, a 101-year-old Ellis attended the grand opening of the center’s first phase, a drop-in center for at-risk youth.
“It amazes me to think that little ol’ Ruth Ellis has come this far,” she said at the time. “I don’t know how it happened. It’s been a miracle to me to see my name on a building, the Ruth Ellis Center, that’s taking care of young people. I hope you have plenty of success and I hope you get grants that will help you go further and further.”
Just weeks later, Ellis died quietly in her sleep. It might just be because Ruthie is looking down on the center and Detroit’s youth, but whatever the reason, her wish has come true. Last year saw the opening of Ruth’s House, a transitional living center that recently expanded its program to include a youth shelter. A second house has been purchased and is currently being renovated, and the drop-in center in Palmer Park has moved into much larger quarters since Ellis cut the ribbon and helped open it in 2000.
Five years after her death, Ruthie’s memory and legacy live on.

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael joined Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. He has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author for his authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," released on his own JAM Books imprint.