In a climate where Black, Indigenous and other people of color still struggle to live freely, those who have paved the way for a more equitable world too often go unrecognized. People of color who lived at the intersection of other marginalized identities, such as LGBTQ, can be especially overlooked.
Ruth Ellis lived outwardly and proudly as a Black queer woman during a period when few were given the space to do so. (Queer is an umbrella term. Once considered a slur, it has been reclaimed by many who defy gender and sexuality norms.) Her story is one that deserves increased recognition as part of the effort to capture a more accurate version of history that better includes diverse figures.
Ellis was born in Springfield on July 23, 1899, to formerly enslaved, self-educated parents. She was the youngest of four siblings. Her mother, Carrie Farro, was a homemaker who died five months after Ellis' 13th birthday. Her father, Charles Ellis Sr., was the first Black mail carrier in Illinois. Ruth Ellis graduated high school during a time when less than 10 percent of African American girls did so.
Throughout her formative years, Ellis noticed the racism within the city, particularly during the so-called "race riot" of 1908. This massacre against Black residents was spurred by a white woman named Mabel Hallam, who lied by claiming George Richardson, a Black construction worker, raped her. Ellis later recounted the terror of witnessing her father and older brothers preparing their home for potential attacks during the riot. She stated that the only weapons the family had for defense were a pile of bricks and a commemorative sword from the Knights of Pythias, the fraternal organization her father belonged to.
An accomplished pianist who could play by ear, Ellis was a talented musician. Though she had grown up in a home surrounded by music, dance and family, Ellis found herself lonely. One of only a few Black students in her class, and the only girl in her household after her mother's death, there was no one she could truly relate to. But she soon discovered a world that would open up when her father bought a medical book and left it out for her to find. The book helped her find herself.
Around the age of 16, Ellis developed an attraction to her female gym teacher. Curious about what it meant to have those feelings, Ellis became absorbed in the psychology book her father had purchased. It was there that she discovered the word "homosexual" and she realized she was a lesbian. Ellis began to live outwardly, never shy to tell people about her identity. And though sexuality was not widely spoken about at the time, Ellis had stated that she was never "in a closet."
In a 1999 interview, Ellis said her father was ahead of his time concerning sexuality. She believed he was relieved that his little girl was gay because boys would not be a threat. Ellis recalled that her father never let her go out in the company of boys. He would say, "books and boys don't go together," but Ellis was permitted to have female friends over.
In 1936, Ellis met her partner, Ceciline "Babe" Franklin. At first Ellis did not take Babe very seriously due to their 10-year age difference, but over time their connection became undeniable. The following year, Ellis moved to Detroit, after her older brother mentioned employment opportunities there. Franklin joined her in 1938.
In order to buy their home on Oakland Street, Franklin worked as a cook and Ellis as a typesetter. The home would not only become the headquarters for their own business, Ellis and Franklin Printing, but a place of refuge. It was known as "The Gay Spot" from 1946-1972. For Black, queer folks who experienced the intersection of racism and homophobia, it was a sanctuary. The two of them would offer their support and home to youth who had been shunned or who experienced trauma due to their identities.
In the 1960s, the pair separated after Ellis found out about recurring infidelities. Afterwards, she would remain single. But her work within the community persisted.
As a Black queer woman, Ellis understood what it was like to live on the margins of society. In the early 1970s she found herself even more active in the greater community, attending events that promoted equity for women, LGBTQ people and African Americans. Prolific in her activism and feminism, she was a mentor who acted as guide to many who were trying to find their way. She worked tirelessly to be seen and to make a way for herself and others.
Ellis died on Oct. 5, 2000, at the age of 101. She lived long enough to see Detroit open the Ruth Ellis Center, a place of refuge for queer, transgender and gender-nonconforming youth in search of kinship and acceptance.
Vincent "June" Chappelle works at the Illinois State Museum. He serves on the boards of the Springfield and Central Illinois African American History Museum, the Sangamon County Historical Society and the Sangamon Experience. Research for this story included ancestry records and recorded interviews with Ellis.