This month, Ruth Ellis was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Also during October, the Ruth Ellis Center celebrates its 10th anniversary and all the things that make up Ellis’ legacy. The youth. The giving. The happiness.
Originally run in 2000, this look back at the life of the legend – Ruth Ellis – celebrates her warmth, her drive and her contributions to the LGBT community. We at Between The Lines wish to honor Ellis for all she did and all she still means to the LGBT youth of Michigan.
She inspired us all with her drive, her warmth and her capacity to love. Ruth Ellis, centenarian, humanitarian and matriarch to Detroit’s LGBT community, has died. She was 101.
Born July 23, 1899, in Springfield, Ill., Ellis recalled hiding in her home during the Springfield race riots of 1908. Later, she fell in love with her white gym teacher, who held her hand to complete a class circle when other students wouldn’t.
Encouraged by the promise of better wages, Ellis moved to Detroit in 1937, where she watched over a young boy in Highland Park for $7 a week. Soon, however, she put the printing press knowledge she had picked up in Springfield to work and secured a position with Waterfield and Heath, where she worked until opening her own press some years later. Ellis ran her business out of the West Side home she shared with Ceciline “Babe” Franklin.
The couple became known for their weekend house parties, a haven for young LGBTs. Ellis was said to have even helped a few through college before retiring and moving to a senior citizen’s complex downtown. Franklin, meanwhile, moved to Southfield, but the two shared keys to one another’s residences and the relationship continued until 1975, when Franklin suffered a heart attack on her way to work.
“I don’t think it was love,” Ellis once said, reflecting on her 30-year relationship with Franklin. “(But) she was good for me. She taught me how to take care of myself.”
Ellis remained active after the loss, taking up photography and bowling. She traveled often and began helping out other senior citizens who lived nearby, running errands for them and picking up their groceries.
In the late 1980s, Ellis was attending a self-defense class when she met Jay Spiro, who she correctly identified as a fellow lesbian. The two had dinner and Spiro began introducing Ellis around. Soon, crowds were lining up to dance with Ellis at parties and social functions, where she developed a reputation for repeatedly wearing out dance partners on the floor.
The awards and accolades began at about the same time, as the public took notice of the remarkableness of Ellis’ life, her entrepreneurial skills and the assistance she had provided to younger LGBTs for several decades. Lifetime achievement awards, resolutions from the mayor and various other officials and even an honorary doctorate ensued.
But the greatest recognition came as her 100th birthday drew near. Ellis was written up in virtually every major LGBT publication across the country as “Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100,” the documentary-style telling of her life, won top honors at several major film festivals. The exposure brought Ellis to the forefront, resulting in profiles in Essence and Ms. Magazine. Ellis eventually tired of the attention, though. Her failing health caused her to cut down her traveling schedule, and she even turned down the chance to appear on “Oprah.”
Finally, Ellis was hospitalized late this summer, dehydrated and exhausted. She struggled to hold on until she had made it back home, however, where she wanted to make her transition. Ellis died in her sleep in the early morning hours of Oct. 5.
Often amazed at her own celebrity, Ellis frequently asked why everyone was making such a “fuss” over her. Those who had the pleasure of knowing her, however, would never ask such a question.
“Ruth positively touched lives across North America,” said Johnny Jenkins of Detroit Black Gay Pride. “Her spirit touched the essence of our humanity.”