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social sciences

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Ellis, Ruth (1899-2000)  
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Small of stature but great of heart, Ruth Ellis became an icon of the glbtq community in Detroit, where she lived for most of her 101 years. Out, proud, generous, and plain-speaking, she lived life on her own terms with determination and dignity. The Ruth Ellis Center continues her legacy of offering shelter and support to young glbtq people.

Ruth Ellis was a witness to history. She came within a few months of living through the entire twentieth century with its remarkable changes for glbtq people, African-Americans, and women, but she also had profound ties to the nineteenth. Her father, Charles Ellis, was born a slave in Tennessee. He eventually settled in Springfield, Illinois and became the first black postal carrier in the state.

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Charles Ellis married Carrie Farrell, another Tennessee native, and the couple had three sons. On July 23, 1899, Carrie Ellis delivered twin girls at home. One infant did not survive; the other, Ruth Charlotte, became a centenarian.

Ruth Ellis learned about bigotry early in her life when a race riot erupted in Springfield in the summer of 1908 after a black man was accused--falsely, as it turned out--of raping a white woman. Many black families fled when rioters announced the intention to burn their homes, but the Ellises remained, with Charles Ellis standing guard downstairs with the ceremonial sword that he owned as a member of the benevolent society of the Knights of Pythias. The violence went on for two days before the National Guard was able to quell it. The Ellis family and their home came through the ordeal safely.

Carrie Ellis died of a stroke when her daughter was twelve, and her widower was left to raise the children as a single parent. He did not want his young daughter to socialize with boys because, he told her, "boys and books don't go together." She did not view this as a privation.

Ellis attended Springfield public schools. African-American students were distinctly in the minority at her "white school" and did not receive much encouragement. Ellis described herself as bashful in her school days, but it seems more likely that she was intimidated.

"I didn't mix very well with the white girls. Or they didn't mix with me. In gym class, the teacher would have to hold my hand because some of the girls didn't want to hold hands with someone Black," stated Ellis.

A gym teacher at Springfield High School was one of her first crushes.

Having recognized her attraction to other women, Ellis recalled, "I used to fool around with girls and have them stay all night. One morning, my Daddy said, 'Next time y'all make that much noise, I'm going to put you BOTH out.'"

Homosexuality was never an issue that was discussed in the family, but, Ellis said in 1997, "I think [my father] was kind of glad that I had a woman instead of a man because he was afraid I'd come home with a baby. If you had a baby in those days, you'd have to leave home. And he wanted me home."

Ellis believed that her eldest brother, Charles Ellis, Jr., a World War I veteran who never married, was also gay, but "he never talked about it or anything like that."

Ellis graduated from Springfield High School in 1919 and went to work as a nursemaid and cook for a local family. She subsequently got a job at a print shop, where she learned how to set type and operate the presses.

In 1937, one of her brothers, who was living in Detroit, suggested that Ellis could earn more money there than in Springfield, and so she boarded a Greyhound bus and moved north.

She was soon joined by Ceceline "Babe" Franklin, whom she called her "one real girlfriend" and "the only person I had ever lived with." Franklin had promised Ellis that "if you ever leave Springfield, I'll come where you are," and she was true to her word.

Franklin took a job as a cook in a restaurant, and Ellis went to work for a printer for a time before deciding to go into business for herself. She and Franklin bought a two-family flat in Detroit and devoted the front room to the print shop. Much of Ellis's business came from local churches for which she printed coin envelopes and raffle tickets. She would also "take the walk-in trade" from neighborhood businesses and private customers requiring posters, fliers, or stationery. A self-taught photographer, she set up a darkroom in the former coal-bin of the house and offered the service of making hand-colored prints.

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