Mother Ruth Charlotte Ellis is a legendary figure among Detroit’s black LGBTQ community. Her life and legacy, which reached LGBTQ community members and allies of all ethnicities and backgrounds, is still widely celebrated today, both in Detroit, her home city of many years, and around the world.
Known as ‘Mother’ thanks to her role as a matriarchal figure in the LGBTQ community, Mother Ruth Charlotte Ellis was thought to have been the oldest living out lesbian by many LGBTQ community members and allies when she died at 101 in 2000. Born in Springfield, Illinois, in 1899, Ellis had a love for creating sustainable community and supporting queer youth.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
The impact of Ellis’ life and legacy has been celebrated in big ways by her city and community, both during her life and after her death. Ellis’ 100th birthday celebration was held on the campus of Detroit’s Wayne State University with the guest of honor in attendance and dressed to the nines. Ellis’ life was also celebrated by Chicago film director Yvonne Welbon in her documentary Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 (1999). In 2009, Ellis was inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame and she was added to Chicago’s Legacy Walk – an outdoor art installation honoring people in LGBTQ history – in 2013. Each year, Detroit’s black Pride celebration (the second oldest in the country) kicks off with a parade in Ellis’ name to begin the week-long Hotter Than July events.
Ellis was an LGBTQ icon who lived her life outside of the closet and helped other women feel comfortable with themselves. As a storyteller and gatekeeper of black lesbian history and knowledge, the centenarian painted stories of lesbians for lesbians, shared from personal memories. Ellis spent time with and emotionally nurtured younger lesbians, helping them to understand the importance of education and advising them to use their voices and to be of service to the less fortunate. She made her own path as a lesbian in a time of extreme prejudice, navigating the bumpy terrain without a road map or guide.
In Living With Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100, Ellis explains that she lost her mother, Carrie Farro Ellis, as a teenager. Ellis, her brothers and their father, Charles Ellis Sr., managed to carry on. Neither Ellis nor her father made a big deal over her emerging sexuality. In the documentary, Ellis shared that as a teenager she had a girlfriend sleep over and they had been noisy. The next morning, her father simply asked that they “keep it down” next time.
Ellis moved from Illinois to Detroit, Michigan, with her lover, Ceciline “Babe” Franklin, the only woman Ellis lived with romantically. They settled on Detroit’s northeast side and spent 37 years as a couple. In the 1930s, Ellis became the first woman to own an American printing company – she and Franklin ran the successful business from their home. They supplied community organizations and businesses with printed materials including flyers, bulletins, menus and event announcements.
Ellis enjoyed socializing, dancing and having a good time; many women say they met “Ruthie” at a dance or social spot. From the 1930s through the 1970s, her and Franklin’s home was known in the black queer community as the “gay house.” The couple’s residence was the Detroit social gathering space, providing familiarity and safety for black queer people at a time when racial injustice prevailed and queer black folk were unwelcome in white establishments.
At Ellis’ home, fried chicken dinners, music, dancing, friendship and freedom of self-expression were the benefits of informal gatherings that lessened the blows of homophobia and racism. An intentional safe space was found at her home for five decades. Ellis and Franklin further enhanced their community by financing the college educations of young people in their circle.
Ellis’ love of self and the black queer community led to an outpouring of love for the petite centenarian; she was honored annually at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which ran from 1976 to 2015. Ellis’ ashes are spread between friends who loved her and the spaces that touched her life. Friend Roni Fare says, “It was a special honor to spread Miss Ruth’s ashes on the land where the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was held.”
Detroiter and social worker Kalimah Johnson was 25 years old when she first met Ellis in 1994. She keeps a framed photo of Ellis as well as some of her ashes in her home today. “We hung out at cabarets, bingo, fundraising events with the Human Rights Committee, and D.C. Pride,” Johnson says.
While Johnson has fond memories of dancing and hanging out with Ellis, their friendship also included an educational component. Johnson says that Ellis taught her lessons in service.
“I was encouraged to serve the disenfranchised, live life, focus on the poor and elderly and have at least one glass of wine before bed,” Johnson says.
Ellis was very proud when Johnson completed college, she says. She was amazed and honored when she received a signed graduation card from Ellis with $10 enclosed.
“That was something – Ruthie was living on a fixed income,’’ she says.
In 2002, the Ruth Ellis Center opened in Highland Park, Michigan, named in honor of Ellis for her contributions to the Detroit LGBTQ community. The drop-in center and street outreach programs include multiple transitional housing spaces and health, education and career services for displaced LGBTQ youth. The Trevor Project’s 2019 Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health found that 39 percent of LGBTQ youth had considered suicide within the previous 12 months. For youth without support at home, navigating homophobia alone places them at higher risk for mental and emotional disorders including anxiety, depression and suicide. The Ruth Ellis Center, named in honor of the woman who provided “community safety” from her home, is helping queer youth navigate their way in self-acceptance, community and leadership. A 43-unit supportive housing facility is planned to open on the corner of Woodward and Clairmont in Detroit in 2021. Youth need not identify as LGBTQ to apply for a spot.
The Center’s impact, inspired by Ellis’ helpful spirit, is evident in those involved with its work. In 2002, Kimberly Zaire Jordan, a black trans woman who was then in her early twenties, called the Ruth Ellis Center to inquire about volunteering. Jordan became part of the first crew of the center’s outreach staff, and a “mother” and “big sister” to queer youth hanging out at Palmer Park. Jordan says her experience with the center was empowering.
“It meant I could finally be heard, and trans women of color would finally have a voice in the community and representation at the tables of community board meeting,” Jordan says.
Jordan no longer lives in Detroit but says she is in touch with some of the youth she helped through social media. Each time she visits Detroit she stops in at the Ruth Ellis Center. She continues to work with HIV agencies to get rid of stigma and is a part of B-Block, an organization working to develop leaders of color.
“The center was the foundation for me getting into activism and advocacy work,” Jordan says. “Activism and advocacy will never leave me; it’s in my blood thanks to the Ruth Ellis Center guiding me to my true calling.”
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.