It is an all-hands-on-deck moment in Michigan and our nation. Today’s opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade should be a siren blaring in the night, waking people up from every corner of the country and motivating them to take action — [...]
DETROIT – The first snow had hit the Detroit area, and the guests at the fundraiser this weekend shivered in the poorly-heated upstairs room of the Ruth Ellis Center as the snow melted off their boots and they debated if they should keep their hats on or not. “For those of you who braved the cold to be here, thank you. When I don’t want to come out in weather like this, it reminds me that for many of the youth who use the Ruth Ellis Center, this is what they have to face every day,” said Kofi Adoma.
Adoma organized the gathering to raise money for the center and to celebrate the life of the Center’s namesake Ruth Ellis. Known to many in the community as “Mother Ruth,” Ellis was considered to be the oldest out lesbian during a time when generations of men and women began coming out of the closet and standing up for their rights.
Saturday’s fundraiser featured a film that is over ten years old, but is historically significant for people in the LGBT community and for allies who want to better understand the spirit of the center. The documentary was called Living With Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100 by Yvonne Welbon, it showed not only an important piece of LGBT history, but also the history of Detroit, and the history of black America.
Ellis was born July 23, 1899. Her father was the first black postal carrier in Springfield, IL. She had three brothers, all of whom served in World War I. Her mother died while she was a teenager and her father never seemed to notice or mind that she spent more time with girls, than getting herself into trouble with boys.
In 1908, Ellis experienced her first race riot, which resulted in 40 homes burned, black and Jewish owned businesses destroyed, and an 80 year-old black man being lynched after having been married to a white woman for over 30 years. The NAACP grew out of those troubling riots, and they left Ellis with the memory of her father protecting their home by sleeping across the doorway with a sword in hand.
Ellis graduated high school in 1919, a time when only 5 percent of high school graduates were black women. Her brother broke ground by being the first black doctor in Champaign, IL. They lived through years when blacks could not use the same restrooms as whites, and when they had to sit in the back of movie theatres and opera houses.
Ellis courted several ladies in her teens and 20s, but it was Cecilene “Babe” Franklin that ultimately won her heart. The two corresponded for years until Ellis moved to Detroit in 1937 in search of a more prosperous life. Babe met her there and together they bought a house at Oakland and Caniff.
This house became one of the first safe places for black LGBT people in Detroit. From 1941 to 1971 it was known as “the gay spot,” a place where people could be themselves, play piano, sing, play cards, and socialize. Often the women would take in gay people who had nowhere else to go. They even used what little they had to help young people go to college.
Ellis focused on running a printing business out of the home, and though the women’s relationship got rocky and they saw other people, the women lived together and shared the job of making their home a home for the whole community until the home was torn down in 1971 to make room for a freeway. They parted ways as friends and Babe died in 1975.
For Ellis a whole new world opened up when she met a white lady living downstairs from her in her building. Jaye Spiro, a martial arts instructor, piqued Ellis’ curiosity because of the way she was dressed, thinking that she was “dressed like a lesbian,” even though she had never met a white lesbian before.
The two became instant friends, and Spiro began making sure “Mother Ruth” was part of the growing LGBT movement. Ellis enjoyed trips to the Women’s Music Festival, taking part in rallies for various causes, and mentoring dozens of women. She remained active and alert and lived to be 101 years old. Just before her passing she learned that that the Ruth Ellis Center would be opened and named in her honor.
Since that time, The Ruth Ellis Center has grown into a safe haven for runaway, homeless and at-risk youth. It is one of only four programs in the country that provides housing for LGBT youth, and it serves over 500 youth a year with social services including their Drop In Center and residential facility. They provide life skills education, support and educational groups, mental health services for youth and their families, clothing and care items, community-building activities and a place to be safe and accepted.
For the fundraiser, Adoma gathered members of a discussion group that was active in the late 90s and early 2000s called Race Matters. They led a discussion about the film and shared their memories of “Mother Ruth.”
“I met Ruth at a dance, and she was just a jewel of a person,” said Roland Smith. “She was a person that wanted to impact change. She saw the differences in the way people were treated and she tried to be inclusive. In being herself she drew people to her.”
Bill Rauch also remembered Ellis. “A lot of things she did weren’t because she had some fierce political agenda, she just did things because they seemed right,” Rauch said.
Adoma, who was interviewed in the film, said it is important that people continue to remember Ellis and her spirit. “When the kids are in here dancing and voguing, I tell them they’re honoring Ruth because she loved to dance.”
She also brought up two other points about the film, stating that “the movie brought up issues of how we treat our elders,” and that “just like Ruth Ellis was a role model to us, we are role models to the youth today.”