Beyond Vassar

Capturing Extraordinary Moments: The Documentaries of Yvonne Welbon '84

By Meg Stone ’95

There are times when the most important lessons about ourselves and our history can be learned from observing the extraordinary moments of lives well lived. This reality rings especially true in Yvonne Welbon’s most recent documentary, Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100, which chronicles the life of the oldest known African American lesbian, who celebrated her 100th birthday on July 23, 1999.

Welbon’s storytelling takes us through several important events in U.S. history as observed by Ellis, who recounts living through the 1908 race riots in Springfield, Illinois, witnessing the first airplane flown by the Wright brothers, and participating in the black civil rights movement in the 1960s. Ellis opened her own print shop in the 1940s, a time when less than one percent of black women in Detroit owned businesses. Throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, the home Ellis shared with her partner of 35 years was a central gathering place for Detroit’s black gay community. In her retirement, Ellis is surrounded by a devoted and racially diverse lesbian community, many of whom see her as a grandmother and role model.

Welbon describes her decision to make a documentary about Ellis’s life as a gut instinct, but it is in keeping with her overall goal as a filmmaker to increase the presence of African American women in films. As a film student in 1991, Welbon was struck by the absence of black women filmmakers and is using her career to fill that void. To date she has completed four documentaries, including the autobiographical Remembering Wei Yi-fang, Remembering Myself…, in which she explores the impact of her six years in Taiwan on her understanding of what it means to be an African American. Welbon is at work on a Ph.D. in radio/television/film at Northwestern University and on a new film, Sisters in Cinema, a historical overview of African American women feature-film directors.