Posted at April 23, 2020

Courage to Have Pride: The Ruth Charlotte Ellis Story – C. Imani Williams


Courage to Have Pride: The Ruth Charlotte Ellis Story – C. Imani Williams

Mother Ruth Charlotte Ellis (1899 – 2000), affectionately known as “Ruthie,” was a champion for the Civil Rights of the LGBTQ community. At the time of her passing at 101 years old, Ellis was hailed as the world’s oldest [out] lesbian. She was beloved by members of the LGBTQ community around the world of all races and ethnicities. She was honored annually every year late in life at the Michigan Women’s Festival.

Ellis knew in her teen years that she was attracted to girls and did not try to hide it, which took a tremendous amount of courage at the time. When her mother passed, Ellis lost her primary source of support because she did not have access to any community support groups, phone-in lines, or other formal support systems to help her navigate a world that did not accept her sexuality. Luckily her father accepted her as she was, so she never felt the need to hide her sexuality.

Ruth partnered with Babe Franklin, a woman ten years her senior, and they settled down in Detroit’s Northend, where they maintained a relationship for 37 years. However, Ruth was not content with having personal peace of mind. Remembering her struggles growing up, she set out to help other young people avoid the trauma she faced. Their home became a gathering space for the Black queer community, and an oasis in a desert of hate. Visitors were welcomed with chicken dinners and music. They felt free not just to be themselves but to celebrate each other. The home provided the opportunity to develop lasting friendships and strengthened the community. The house or their friendly support services were not posted in newspapers or any media, but word of mouth was equally effective. Being queer was [and still is] a significant challenge. Being Black and queer compounded the trauma that much more. Even after segregation was officially banned, Blacks were not welcome in most white bars and social clubs. If by chance, they were served, some white bartenders went as far as to break the glass when they finished to avoid serving white patrons from the same glass. Babe and Ruth provided a safe and welcoming space for queer Black community members so they wouldn’t have to deal with such bigotry.

With the help of LGBTQ activists and allies, the Ruth Ellis Center (REC) and Drop-in program opened in Highland Park, MI in 2001. Over its 18-year history, REC provided trauma-informed services for homeless, runaway, and at-risk LGBTQ youth and young adults of color. These types of services are needed today more than ever. According to a national survey conducted by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), 26% of LGBTQ youth feel their families do not accept them; and four in ten youth do not feel accepted by their communities. LGBTQ youth are bullied at twice the rate of their heterosexual peers in school. These aggressions can cause those without coping skills or adequate support mechanisms to fall into depression, which can contribute to the suicide rates. The center is one of the few programs in the US dedicated to housing LGBTQ youth. A recent article in the Detroit News states the Ruth Ellis Center is building a 43-unit housing complex to accommodate more displaced LGBTQ youth. The new space is scheduled to open in 2021.

Ellis was also an entrepreneur. She worked for a print shop in Illinois and decided to leverage her experience and do the same for herself in Detroit. She became the first Black woman to own a print shop when she opened her business in the front room of her home in the 1930s. Her company printed fliers for the church and other community organizations. She and Babe even used revenue from their business to help put a few young adults through college.

Ruthie inspired several generations to serve. One of those people, Kalimah Johnson, 51, feels blessed and honored to have known her. Kalimah said she and Ellis hung out at community events as well as socially. One of the best gifts she received from Ellis was encouragement and wisdom. “She encouraged me to continue my education and to help the poor and elderly,” Kalimah said. She took Ruthie’s advice to heart and became a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW).


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