In celebration of Pride Month and the Black Lives Matter movement, Roar writers share their recommendations and reflections on black queer culture.
The world is currently going through a cultural revolution. While pushing forward black and brown voices into mainstream culture, in this time of Pride, it’s important we look back at black pioneers who were at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. One of these great leaders is American lesbian activist, Ruth Ellis.
Who was Ruth Ellis?
Ruth Charlotte Ellis was born in 1899, in Springfield, Illinois, USA, to parents Charles and Carrie. Charles was born a slave and became the first African-American mailman in Springfield, and Carrie was a homemaker. Although her mother died when she was 12, Ruth’s father continued to support and educate her. She was able to graduate high school at a time when just under 7% of the African-American population were able to. Likewise, Ellis was never “in the closet”. She discovered what the word homosexual meant after reading a psychology textbook her father had given her at the age of 16, and claimed to have had girlfriends around all the time afterwards:
“Nothing ever happened, except one night I had this girlfriend stay and we made a little too much noise. The only thing my father ever said to me was, ‘Next time you girls make that much noise, I will put you both out’.”
Ellis learnt printing and type-making skills while working at a black owned business, I.E. Foster and Co. Having been persuaded by her brother, she and her long-term partner, Ceciline ‘Babe’ Franklin, moved to Detroit, Michigan. Franklin and Ellis would end up as partners for over 30 years. Ellis initially made a living childminding in Detroit, and working at another print shop. But, after using some inheritance money, Ellis eventually set up her own print shop out of her house with Franklin: the Ellis & Franklin Printing Co. At the time, less than 1% of the businesses in Detroit were owned by African-American women. Ruth was able to declare herself the first female owner of a print business in the entire state.
A Legacy of Activism
The home of Ellis and Franklin, affectionately known as ‘The Gay Spot’, eventually became a hub for LGBTQ+ African-Americans in Detroit. Many members of this community were turned away from the white gay bars and black straight clubs because of their race and sexuality respectively. The Gay Spot became a place where young people could gather together and seek aid and support. Ruth assisted young lesbians of colour wanting to know more about their history, as well as proposing the idea of a Big Brother/Sister programme for young LGBTQ+ people to be buddied up with an older LGBTQ+ person to make more social links within the community.
Franklin and Ellis’s relationship and business deteriorated in the 1960s. The Gay Spot too, was eventually demolished in 1971 as part of a redevelopment project. Nevertheless, Ruth continued her activism. During the Civil Rights movement and the Stonewall Riots, she became a figure head for LGBTQ+ African-Americans, travelling the country to deliver speeches.
For her 100th Birthday, Ellis lead the annual Dyke March in San Francisco, and opened the Ruth Ellis Centre (REC) in Detroit. The REC is active to this day, providing trauma support and financial aid to young at-risk, homeless and runaway LGBTQ+ people of colour in the city. She was also the subject of the film Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100, by Yvonne Welbon, which documented her life achievements.
Passing away in her sleep at the age of 101, Ruth Ellis became America’s longest living lesbian. Her legacy continues to this day: the city of Detroit recognises her contributions to the city every Black History Month on Ruth Ellis Day, and in 2009, was indicted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Ruth Ellis is a critical figure to remember when re-centring the narrative around black voices during the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
You can donate to the Ruth Ellis Centre here.