Towards the end of Yvonne Welbon’s film, Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @100, Ruth Ellis wonders why she has been lavished with so much attention and says, “I’m just a common, ordinary person who has enjoyed life.” Considering that Ruth Ellis is the oldest “out” African American lesbian, she has had many extraordinary experiences throughout her lifetime. But, it is part of Ellis’ charm that she can talk about the common and the exceptional events in her life as if they were equally important.
Born July 23, 1899 in Springfield, Illinois, Ellis grew up with the prejudices of the time. She considered herself a “loner” throughout elementary school and made only a few more friends in high school. In recounting her childhood, Ellis lists her hobbies but comes alive when describing her first crush. She took to a gym teacher who would hold her hand in games during class when white students refused.
Exposure to racism was not limited to Ellis’ personal experiences, but is also most poignantly remembered in the 1908 Springfield race riots. Amongst the many other historical moments that Ellis was witness to, she recalls the impact of the March on Washington and seeing Martin Luther King Jr.
Ellis’ life flowered when she met Cecilene “Babe” Franklin, the woman who would become her partner for over 34 years. After their first meeting, Ruth and Babe had to maintain a long distance relationship through love letters until they moved to Detroit to live together. The only obstacle to this relationship was that Babe was 10 years her junior. Ellis states that she was never “in a closet” about being a lesbian since her mother died early, her three brothers were more concerned with themselves, and her father was relieved that his daughter just wasn’t being impregnated before marriage.
Ruth and Babe’s house quickly became known as “The Gay Spot,” which served not only as a meeting place for lesbians, but also as a haven for gay African-Americans who were shunned by their communities. With their limited resources, Ruth and Babe helped many to get back on their feet and through college.
In 1940, Ellis’ brother died and left her some money. She used it to start a printing press called Ellis and Franklin Printing. This was an amazing achievement for a woman at the time, not to mention an African American lesbian.
Until 1971, when her house was ordered to be torn down for urban renewal, Ruth and Babe lived together. Their relationship was at times unsteady because of their interests and personalities. Ellis remembered how hurt she was by Babe’s promiscuity, but was comfortable with their decision to move into separate living establishments for senior citizens once the house was torn down.
Welbon’s documentary is, as Alice Walker comments, a “moving celebration of one of our most inspiring elders” that appeals to anyone who can appreciate Ellis’ triumphs, great and small. Welbon uses historical footage along with recreations of Ellis’ memories. These are both powerful and efficient ways of combining her story with the history of the United States simultaneously.
The final part of the film focuses on women who are both friends and admirers of Ellis. The ending drives home the feeling of inspiration, the high level of her influence, and the contribution she has made by retelling a history that has too long remained untold.
To have lived 100 years is a feat in itself. The fact that Ellis shoots pool, practices yoga, uses exercise machines, dances for over an hour at a time and is still sexually active (Ellis concedes she had sex most recently at age 95) is astounding. It seems that Ellis’s best advice for her admirers — regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or age — is that life is too short to be lived without self-respect and pride.
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