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
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.