JULY 23: Ruth Ellis (1899-2000)
Ruth Ellis, the LGBT rights activist and oldest known lesbian to ever live, was born on this day in 1899 and would have turned 118-years-old today!
Ruth Ellis poses for the camera as she leans against a car in 1951 (x).
Ruth was born on July 23, 1899 in Springfield, Illinois as her parents fourth child and first daughter. Her mother and father, Charles and Carrie Ellis, were former slaves from Tennessee but the abolition of slavery allowed them to move north and build a prosperous life for themselves and their family. Ruth’s mother died when she was young, but her father became the first black mail carrier in the state of Illinois and managed to put three of his children, Ruth included, through high school. Ruth would graduate from Springfield High School in 1919.
Ruth came out to her family as a lesbian when she was just 16-years-old, which was an unheard-of admittance in 1915! She would also recall meeting her partner, Babe, just five years later in 1920. For the next 30 years, Ruth and Babe would live together in Detroit, Michigan, where their home eventually became a major hub for the city’s black gay and lesbian community. Ruth also became the first black woman to ever operate her own printing company in the whole city of Detroit; the business specialized in printing stationary, fliers, and posters, and was operated out of her and Babe’s home.
Ruth is photographed hard at work operating the printing press that fueled her successful small business (x).
Ruth and Babe eventually separated because, as Ruth said, “We were just two opposite people.” Although the refuge of Ruth and Babe’s home ceased to exist, Ruth remained incredibly involved in the LGBT community and reached somewhat of a celebrity status in the 1970s. She became noticed as a frequent attendee of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and eventually began being asked to speak at different universities around the country about her experience as an out lesbian in the pre-Stonewall days. Her 100th birthday was celebrated with the release of the documentary Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100 and that same year Ruth was the honorary leader of the San Francisco Dyke March.
A special photo shoot to celebrate Ruth’s 100th birthday shows her smiling sweetly and holding a bouquet of flowers (x).
Ruth passed away peacefully in her sleep on October 6, 2000 when she was 101-years-old. The Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit continues to be operated in her memory and is one of only four American organizations specifically dedicated to housing LGBT youth.