It had to be 12 years ago when my granddaughter Sidney, who was six years old at the time, and I spent a memorable afternoon bonding. We went to see the movie Finding Nemo, we ate junk until our tummies jiggled, and holding hands, we skipped the two blocks from the movie theatre back to my apartment. She was out-of-character quiet. Much too quiet for Sidney.
Suddenly she stopped, squinted up at me with a serious and puzzled look on her face and said, ‘Granny, can I ask you a personal question?’
‘Certainly, Sid. What is it?’
‘How do you make a living?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You live very well,’ she said. ‘You have nice things and you don’t have a job or a husband. Where do you get your money?’
‘Well,’ I welled. ‘Do you know anything about investments?’
She giggled. I giggled. And we continued skipping on home.
My granddaughter Sidney Grace Black Rotchin is the Queen of Trick Questions.
She also went through a period of, ‘So, Granny, what do you do all day?’ She was not being cheeky. She was just curious and genuinely interested.
Sadly, lately I’ve had a little reprieve from Sid interrogating me because she is busy with her studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and she has a steady boyfriend.
On one of her visits back home from school recently, she said to me, ‘Granny, if you had the opportunity to meet someone famous, who would it be?’
And so I told her about my Ruth Ellis.
There were more than one famous Ruth Ellis women in history.
One Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be executed in the United Kingdom after being convicted of murdering her lover. She has been portrayed as the victim of a cruel boyfriend who abused her and a cruel system that hanged her.
She is not my Ruth Ellis.
My Ruth Ellis who lived to be 101, was America’s oldest advocate of the rights of gays and lesbians and of African Americans. Her spirit continues to touch us today through the efforts of the Ruth Ellis Center, a Detroit youth shelter, transitional living and outreach program founded in 1999.
Ruth Ellis was born into a world of oil lamps, horse-drawn carriages and closeted homosexuals. She is celebrated today as America’s oldest lesbian. When she came out in 1915, no one could teach her what it meant to be a woman. Certainly, she had no lesbian role models. She became aware of her sexual orientation by the time she was 16 and had her first female attraction to her high school gym teacher.
In the 1920s she met Babe, who was her partner for the next 30 years.
‘Because I was 10 years older than she was, I almost shut the door in her face,’ Ellis recalls. ‘She told me if I ever left Springfield she would come to where I was and find me. I don’t think it was real love, but she was good for me. She taught me how to take care of myself.’
In 1937 Ruth Ellis bought a home with her lover, started a print shop and became den mother to people who had moved to that city.
For generations of African-American gays and lesbians, the home of Ruth and her life-long partner Babe, was a refuge to those who were victims of double discrimination, racism and homophobia. Their home became known as the ‘gay spot’, open for parties and dances and they never turned down a gay or lesbian friend who needed a place to stay.
In the latter part of her life, Ruth Ellis was an active and much-beloved member of her community right up until her death at 101 years old.
Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @100, a documentary about her life by Yvonne Welbon, won top honours at several major film festivals.
Ruth’s House opened in 2004. It is the Ruth Ellis Center’s transitional-living quarters which provides short-term and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless and at risk youth in Michigan.
Comedian and Emmy-winning actor Wanda Sykes visited the Center in 2010 and again in 2012. She was so impressed by what she saw that she tweeted her 100,000 followers and went on to star in a public service announcement for the agency.
My Ruth Ellis was a tiny woman with a huge heart. She was inspirational and someone who certainly knew how to turn shit to sugar. Her work has continued and her memory lives on.