The Ruth Ellis Center’s annual Ruth Ellis Day celebration is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 28. Like most events these days, the celebration will be virtual and feature a screening of Yvonne Welbon’s documentary “Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100” and a talk on LGBTQ+ history in Detroit.
Ruth Ellis was born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1899. She moved to Detroit in 1937 and started off working as a nanny. But she knew to operate a printing press and set type, and soon enough she was working for a printing firm called Waterfield and Heath. Ellis, though, was an entrepreneur and wanted to work for herself. So she set up her own print shop in her home on Detroit’s West Side.
In the 1940 and ’50s, Ellis’s house became a popular hangout for LGBTQ+ folk of color who had few safe social gathering spots. Ellis, and her lover, Cecilene “Babe” Franklin, threw weekend parties and often opened their home to young LGBTQ+ teens and adults who had been put out by their families or had no other place to say. Ellis would help them out with financial assistance and sometimes even contribute to tuition and books.
Ellis eventually lost her house in the name of urban revitalization and moved into a senior apartment building downtown. She immersed herself in many hobbies, such as bowling, photography and travel, after retiring. But she began a new career as a virtual celebrity in the LGBTQ+ community after martial arts expert Jay Spiro met Ellis in a senior’s self-defense class and began introducing her to the current LGBTQ+ scene.
Ellis loved to dance and have good-natured fun. She lived to be 101, dying in 2000. For the last years of her life, she was known as the country’s oldest living out lesbian. She traveled across the country to promote the documentary that told her life story. In 1999, a group of LGBTQ+ activists got together and decided to create a homeless shelter for LGBTQ+ youth and at their very first meeting decided to name the group they formed after Ellis. Ellis, herself, cut the ribbon to open the first Ruth Ellis Center Drop-in Center in Highland Park shortly before she died.
Today, the Ruth Ellis Center is thriving and Ellis’s memory lives on. The celebration of Ruth Ellis Day, which takes place each year during African-American History Month, was started by REC founding board member Dr. Kofi Adoma while Ellis was still alive.
“A few years before Ruth passed, we knew that we wanted to celebrate her while she was here,” Adoma said at a Ruth Ellis Day celebration in 2018. “We didn’t wait until she died. [But since she passed] this is a tradition that we have kept going.
“We hold Ruth Ellis Day during Black History/Herstory month because we considered Ms. Ruth to be a part of black history,” Adoma continued. “In fact, I still think we need to put her on a stamp.”
The Ruth Ellis Day celebration starts at 4 p.m. on Feb. 28. This event will be held on Zoom. To register, visit this link.