By Melissa Morris, Campaign Manager, Why Marriage Matters-PA
When I think about the breadth of blacks in this country and the difference so many have made, I’m not drawn to the typical civil rights leaders that we heard about in elementary school for black history month. I think about the everyday people who are making a difference to the average person without even realizing the ripple effect of greatness. I think about the quiet heroes like Ruth Ellis.
Ruth Ellis isn’t the typical choice you would see as far as Black History Month candidates go. Born in 1899, she didn’t have multiple degrees and she wasn’t known for being, “well-spoken.” But what she did have was a big heart that she opened to as many black LGBT people as she could during a time where neither blacks nor gays seemed to have a place in our country.
At the age of sixteen, Ellis came out in 1915 and is widely credited as being the oldest out lesbian in American history, living to be 101. Though she claimed she never really came out of the closet, she was always just herself; she didn’t know what being in the closet meant. Her mother died when she was young, so being a black lesbian with no role models of what being a woman or being gay was, proved to be more than difficult.
Though she struggled academically, Ellis completed high school in a time where less than seven percent of black girls were able to finish high school. The daughter of a freed slave who taught himself to read and write and would eventually become the first black mail-carrier in Illinois, Ellis followed in her father’s footsteps of self-education. She taught herself photography and printing and became the first woman to own a printing business in Illinois.
Beyond being openly gay in a time where almost no one was openly gay and being a black female business owner at a time when women just won the right to vote, Ruth Ellis created perhaps one of the first safe-zones for black LGBT people in the U.S. (Read more about the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Issues)
Ellis and her partner bought a home together in Detroit which became known as “The Gay Spot” by those in the black gay community. From 1946 to 1971, this safe space provided a place to go for blacks unwelcome at local bars and was a refuge to blacks who were “out” before there was a Stonewall. Over the years, many of the couple’s guests were students, and Ellis personally assisted many of them with money for college, books, and food. This home was also open to black gay men coming from the South in need of a place to establish themselves.
Despite growing up with limited exposure to the world, Ellis provided for the basic need of love and acceptance to so many in the area. Eventually Ellis would be acquainted with lesbians from all over the country and participate in homegrown activism across many states. In 1999, the Ruth Ellis Center was established in her honor with a mission to “provide short and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, and questioning youth.”
Ellis was a pioneer without having her name splashed in the news and without a following, moving her personal mission along. She was an everyday black woman, being herself and supporting her community. I can only hope to be half the woman for half as long as Ms. Ellis.
Now that I think about the simple yet extraordinary life of a woman we know little about, I realize this is how I view the ACLU and the people we stand up for, simple yet extraordinary. Those we fight for aren’t flashy and you probably only hear about them when a lawsuit is being brought against someone pretty vocal, but that’s not what creates change. Leaders don’t have to talk about how great they are or prove their worth; they do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. Even if you’ve never heard of her, Ruth Ellis was a leader and so are all of the overlooked and underappreciated, everyday heroes who have stood up and done the right thing, simply because it was the right thing.
This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.
Melissa Morris comes to the ACLU-PA with more than 15 years of experience as a program developer and trainer for community based organizations and within higher education.