When she came out around 1915, no one could teach her what it meant to be a woman. Certainly, she had no lesbian role models. "My mother died just about the time I started menstruating," she recalls, "so she showed me that, but from then on nobody told me anything."
A well-placed message from her father finally brought the world of women into her view: "Once my dad brought me a book. It told about women, different parts of their body, and all like that. He didn't tell me he'd bought that book. He just laid it on his desk. He knew I'd be meddlesome and look in to read it. When he thought I'd seen enough of it, why, the book disappeared. So that's how I learned [about sex]."
Ellis' father, born into slavery, was a self-educated man who became the first African American mail carrier in Illinois. Ellis and two of her three brothers graduated from high school at a time when fewer than 7 percent of African American schoolgirls were able to complete secondary school.
In the 1920s she met Babe, who would become her partner for the next 30 years. "Because I was 10 years older than she, I almost shut the door in her face," Ellis recalls. "She told me if I ever left Springfield she'd come to where I was. I don't think it was real love. I just think it was time for me to get away."
The two women bought a home together in Detroit. Ellis got a job at a print shop and Babe worked as a cook. "That was my first experience of living with somebody," Ellis says. "She was very handy around the house. She'd remodel, do things that had to be done," she says. "I'd sit and watch, take care of the animals."
Soon, the couple's home became a central location for African American gay and lesbian underground parties, while a room on the lower floor also became a storefront for Ellis' new business. "I was working for a printer and I said to myself, if I can do this for him, how come I can't do it for myself?" For years, she made her living printing stationery, flyers, posters, and raffle tickets for churches, small businesses, and individuals.
Meanwhile, staying in the relationship called upon all of Ellis' resources. "It worked pretty good for a while," she says. "We were just two opposite people. She liked to drink, go to bars, gamble. I never did all that. Mine was concerts and things like that, going to church and church things."
Eventually, they parted. "We went our separate ways, but we stayed together over 30 years," says Ellis. "That's what I want these girls to do now, instead of breaking up after two or three months."
Introduced to the larger gay community in the '70s, Ellis in recent years has become a celebrity of sorts. She is a familiar face each year at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and she has been invited to speak at numerous other events nationwide. A recent documentary, Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100, has been playing the film festival circuit. And she led this year's San Francisco Dyke March, where thousands of Bay Area women sang "Happy Birthday" to her, the first of many birthday celebrations over the summer.
Ellis seems content now to stay home in Detroit. She says she won't return to California, nor will she go to France despite a pressing invitation. "No, I'm not crossing no ocean, no way," she says.
Having lived through the passing of an earlier century, Ellis looks to the new millennium with more confidence than most. "Everybody seems to be skeptical about this [year] 2000 change," she says. "I've got my oil lamp and groceries."
From Curve (Nov. 1999). Subscriptions: $23.70/yr. (8 issues) from One Haight St., Suite B, San Francisco, CA 94102.