Annual Ruth Ellis Day Community Celebration Potluck
Sunday, Feb. 24
4 to 6 p.m.
At the home of Dr. Kofi Adoma
A casual, smoke-free, alcohol-free intergenerational environment.
For information, the address and to RSVP call 313-570-1543
The year was 1978 and Jaye Spiro was teaching self-defense classes at senior citizen centers around Detroit. At one such complex, whose name she no longer recalls, Spiro met a feisty senior citizen named Ruth Ellis.
"She was 78 or 79 and I was maybe 30," Spiro recalled. "Ruth loved to participate in whatever activities they had going on, especially the physical stuff."
The class Spiro was teaching was ongoing at the center, and after one particular session, Ellis approached Spiro.
"She said, 'Would you like to come over sometime for dinner?' And I said, 'Sure.'"
At that dinner, in Ruth's apartment, Spiro noticed certain pictures placed around that started to give her the vibe that Ellis was gay.
"Even though I had never met a lesbian much beyond my age, 30ish or whatever, I began to sense that Ruth was," Spiro said.
So, while it was a risky thing to do less than a decade post-Stonewall, Spiro outed herself to Ruth, and Ruth, who would later admit she had never previously met a white lesbian, did the same in return.
"She started telling me about Babe, her partner who had died, and how a lot of her friends from the old days were dead and gone," Spiro said. "She was very sad that the community she was very centrally involved with were gone. She was living in a senior center and people were dead and she was lonely."
At that point, Ruth had already lived a long life. Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1899, she started working early as a nursemaid to white infants, making a mere $3 a week. When her brother Charles, who had recently relocated to Detroit, told her she could make double if she moved, Ruth boarded the train. Her first job, taking care of a small child in Highland Park, paid her a whopping $7 a week.
In Springfield, Ellis had learned to set type and run a press from a neighbor and on days off from her nursemaid job, she looked for work in the printing field. It didn't take long to find work, and before long Ellis was employed at Waterfield & Heath where she would stay 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 the home she shared with her partner Cecilene "Babe" Franklin.
Starting in the 1940s, Ruth and Franklin opened up their home to other LGBTQ folk. Those they hosted were often young and with limited access to safe spaces where they could express their true identities. On the weekends, the Ellis/Franklin home became the party spot, too, but it was more than that. Ellis often took in strays, young gays and lesbians who had been kicked out of their homes and had nowhere else to stay. Through the years, Ellis even helped put a few of them through college.
However, after many years of making a difference in Detroit's LGBTQ community, Ellis and Franklin were forced out of their home in the name of urban revitalization in the '70s. Though they remained a couple, Franklin took an apartment in Southfield, and Ruth moved into the senior citizen building downtown. In her retirement, she found new interests. She enjoyed photography, took up bowling and loved to travel. When Franklin died in 1975, and by the time Spiro came along, Ellis' friends from the old days were few and she had lost most of her connections to her LGBTQ identity.
Building New Connections
"I told her there were a lot of gay people around who would probably love to meet her," Spiro said. "So, I started inviting her to activities. Ruth was very outgoing and people just fell in love with her immediately. She was our elder. We knew we had to have elders, but because things had been so closeted before the '70s we didn't know who they were. So she was widely embraced."
In 1979, Ellis overheard Spiro and friends talking about the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Ellis, ever inquisitive, wanted to know more about it.
"I was like, 'Ruth, I don't think you're going to want to go there,'" Spiro said. "I explained that sometimes women there were naked, that they went topless."
But Ellis was no prude.
"She was like, 'Sign me up,'" Spiro said. "And she wanted to go and she went. And she loved it."
After making new connections, Ellis began to be well-known again in Metro Detroit's fledgling lesbian community.
"They made her the queen of every event she went to," Spiro said. "She loved to dance. People really enjoyed having her at parties and activities and she was very generous and giving."
Ellis, said Spiro, was a unifier and excelled at bringing people together.
"She really wanted to bring the African-American and white gays and lesbians together," Spiro said. "And in some ways, she was in a position to do it because we all honored her so much because she was our foremother."
After meeting her one night at the Detroit Women's Coffeehouse, Dr. Kofi Adoma became one of several African-American lesbians who befriended Ellis and began taking her to events in the black gay community.
"People just gravitated to her and I don't think it was just her age," Adoma said. "I think it was her personality and how intelligent she was and how alert and aware she was. Her mind was really sharp."
Like Spiro, at the time they first encountered each other, Adoma had never met a lesbian of such advanced age before.
"I was so excited to meet her and know that there was someone like her present in our community," Adoma said.
Throughout all of the '80s and much of the '90s, Ellis once again became a fixture in her community and as she aged it seemed her presence was becoming more sacred. In 1998, the James Baldwin – Pat Parker Society began an annual Ruth Ellis Day celebration that continues to this day.
"We had a gathering and we asked people to bring food," Adoma said. "We came together and had the potluck and Ruth spoke and she told us the history. … After that day I guess people decided we should do it every year. And Ruth was delighted.
Ellis, who would turn 100 in 1999, was the subject of a documentary to be premiered in Detroit on her birthday as part of the annual Hotter Than July – Detroit Black Gay Pride celebration. She would go on to travel and promote that film, "Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100" and make more than 100 appearances across the country to tell her story.
But, as celebrated as she was, eventually Ellis was forced to slow down. Her health began to fail in the last few months of her life, and going to and from the hospital became a regular trend. Her final public appearance was in September of 2000, when she cut the ribbon for the grand opening of the first Ruth Ellis Center Drop-In Center, having lent her name to the agency developed to help homeless LGBTQ youth. Just weeks later, on Oct. 4, Ruth died peacefully in her sleep.
"I think she was done," Spiro said. "By the time she left us I think she was done and she felt very good about what she had accomplished in her life."
Indeed, Ruth left behind a legacy that endures.
"She was just such a role model for me and others, other women especially, in that she had such endurance," Adoma said. "She was ready to go out in the wilderness and she wasn't afraid. She was quite courageous."