Jun 21, 2023 - News

LGBTQ+ Detroit activist Ruth Ellis' home long gone with no historical marker

Ruth Ellis. Photo courtesy of the Ruth Ellis Center

A house crucial to Detroit's LGBTQ+ history became a vacant lot 50 years ago and lacks any reminder of that past.

Why it matters: Ruth Ellis was a highly influential Black LGBTQ+ activist who lived to age 101, experiencing many eras of Detroit's history before her death in 2000. The 24-year-old local Ruth Ellis Center nonprofit was named after her, assisting LGBTQ+ youth dealing with homelessness and other wellbeing challenges.

  • Her home on Oakland Avenue became the primary safe hangout in the city in the 1940s-60s for Black gays and lesbians who weren't welcomed at predominantly white gay bars, according to her obituary. Ellis was a mentor to young people who partied or stayed there.

Yes, but: The house was demolished in the name of urban renewal in the early 1970s, per media reports.

  • The site now appears to be part of an empty lot, though there's a sign in one corner asking residents to log onto a website and weigh in on what they'd like to see happen in the future there and elsewhere in the neighborhood.

State of play: The National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places, has made efforts over the years to commemorate LGBTQ+ spaces of importance.

  • Yet, there appear to be no such places commemorated in Detroit, as historian and adjunct MSU professor Tim Retzloff pointed out on a local queer history site.
  • Some people, including the head of Motor City Pride, Dave Wait, want to see Michigan historical markers for local queer sites, Retzloff wrote.

The intrigue: While Ellis' famous home is long gone, sites with demolished buildings can still be considered for historical markers, the state of Michigan's website says.

Flashback: Ellis was born in 1899 in Springfield, Ill., and died in 2000, per the Legacy Project Chicago. She was open about being a lesbian by age 16 — extremely rare at the time — and then moved to Detroit with her longtime partner, Ceciline "Babe" Franklin, in her mid-30s.

  • Ellis became an entrepreneur in the printing industry from her home on Oakland, and gained a reputation for helping people in need.
  • She moved to a retirement home after being forced out of her house, according to Pridesource.
Ruth Ellis' home (left) and the approximate site now, along Oakland Avenue in the North End neighborhood. Left photo courtesy of the Ruth Ellis Center; right photo by Annalise Frank/Axios
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