Ruth Ellis was one of the oldest openly gay black women in the world when she died at 101 years old in 2000. She was born in 1899, 36 years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and 15 years before the First World War started.
This was a time when our country was hostile to women, black people, and gay people. Ellis just happened to be all three.
She moved to Detroit in 1937 with her partner Ceciline “Babe” Franklin. The couple wanted to make things better for other LGBTQ people, so they used their home as a safe space for black gay people.
Kofi Adoma, a longtime friend of Ellis, says Ellis inspired many black LGBTQ people to be themselves.
“If she can do it, and be happy and live a good life, why not us,” Adoma said.
Adoma and Ellis instantly bonded over being black lesbians with a passion for classical music and activism.
Adoma says Ellis went her way to help LGBTQ youth, especially the ones who were black.
“Because often times when these youth come out to say their parents, their relatives and loved ones the family might not necessarily be accepting and in fact might be rejecting,” she said.
A University of Chicago study estimates that up to 40 percent of youth experiencing homelessness are from the LGBTQ community.
That’s why Adoma co-founded the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park. Before it opened, there weren’t many organizations to keep those young people safe. Adoma says LGBTQ teens are a very vulnerable group of people.
“That’s what we try to teach some of the kids at the Ruth Ellis Center also. Be who you are, love yourself, respect yourself, and at the same time realize that you still live in a society that has yet to embrace our existence unfortunately,” she said.
The Center first opened in 1999 on the border of Detroit and Highland Park in a small building next to strip club. It was across from Palmer Park, where a lot of gay youth hung out and where some fell into sex work, or found themselves in unsafe situations. The center has since moved to a bigger building down the street in Highland Park.
I’sha Schultz-Spradlin, the Community Engagement Manager at the Ruth Ellis Center, says the center’s mission of caring for LGBTQ youth inspired her to leave her home on the East Coast.
“I moved from Pennsylvania all the way to Detroit to work for this organization because there is no organization doing the work that they do,” Schultz-Spradlin said.
That work includes housing and feeding homeless LGBTQ youth, and connecting those same young people with jobs and health services.
Places designed to help LGBTQ people, let alone LGBTQ people of color, didn’t exist for most of Ellis’ life. In fact, a lot of the women who looked up to Ruth didn’t know any other elderly lesbians.
Sarah Uhle, a longtime friend of Ellis, says she looks at Ellis as a grandmother substitute.
“All of my grandparents died relatively young, so I looked at Ruth like the grandmother I wanted to have in my life,” Uhle said.
Uhle and Ellis often went to music festivals and concerts together, most notably the Annual Michigan Womyn’s Music festival, which has since ended.
“She was even better than a natural grandmother because she was a lesbian, so that was another way we could bond,” she said.
Uhle, who is a lesbian, met Ellis at a self-defense class when she was living in Detroit. Uhle was in her 30’s and Ellis was in her 80’s.
Uhle is older now, and living in East Lansing. She sits on her friend’s daybed flipping through pictures of Ellis.
“This is a fairly famous one of Ruth at her printing press. And this is Ruth and Kofi. Kofi always played her violin for Ruth at a birthday party,” she said.
Uhle and Adoma both say Ellis was happy when she found out they’d name the center after her.
Schultz-Spradlin thinks Ellis would be overwhelmed to see it now. After all, helping other LGBTQ people live long and happy lives is all Ellis ever wanted.