Cold case: death of African American artist Ellis Ruley
NORWICH, Conn. (AP) – Amid the sounds of birds chirping and water falling from a fountain on the quiet morning, a small group Sunday walked through Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park, the former home and painting spot of the late city artist.
“You can see how idyllic it is, why you would want to paint up here. It’s such a beautiful spot. It’s quiet,” said Frank Manfredi, the chairman of the Ellis Ruley Project Committee, who added that the site felt like the middle of Vermont or New Hampshire.
During the walk, which was part of The Last Green Valley’s Walktober 2018, committee members led the group through the property, at 28 Hammond Ave., and provided them with history of Ruley and efforts to commemorate him. In July, the site was dedicated as a park in Ruley’s honor that includes a patio, benches, a water fountain, and plaques with information about Ruley.
The group began by hiking up the path to the top of the hill, where they stopped to observe the stone foundation of a house, all that remains from Ruley’s home. The property, surrounded by trees, also includes the foundation of a smaller building that may have been used as a garage or shed, the now-paved driveway, and a well.
Ruley, whose father had fled from slavery, was born in Norwich in 1882. He bought the property in 1933 and lived there with his wife, Wilhelmina, who was white, and his daughter and son-in-law. A self-taught artist, Ruley created his artwork using house paint on materials, such as clapboard, rather than canvas, and liked to drive around town in a Chevrolet coupe, called the Green Hornet, according to Manfredi and the committee’s secretary Shiela Hayes.
In 1948, his son-in-law, Douglas Harris, was discovered dead, head-first with his shoulders in the 20-inch-wide well on the property; the report at the time was that his death was an accident, Manfredi said. Eleven years later, Ruley was found dead at the age of 77, with head wounds, in his driveway.
“There’s a lot of mystery revolving around Ellis Ruley and the mystery of his son-in-law’s death and his death,” Manfredi said as the group stood by the stone foundation.
In 1961, two years after Ruley’s death, the house burned down. Though no one knows what caused the fire or what was in the house, it is speculated that much of Ruley’s artwork was lost in the fire, Manfredi said.
In the 1990s, documentary filmmaker and author Glenn Palmedo-Smith became interested in Ruley after he bought his painting, Adam and Eve, at an auction and then learned of his life and death. He came to Norwich to conduct interviews and investigate. Palmedo-Smith, who also wrote a biography on Ruley called Discovering Ellis Ruley, is working on a documentary on Ruley’s life and is raising money to finish the production, Manfredi said.
Palmedo-Smith pushed for autopsies, which former New York chief medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden performed in 2015. Baden said that Harris’ death was a homicide, while Ruley’s death was undetermined.
Manfredi said that while Baden was unable to come to a conclusion regarding Ruley’s death because there wasn’t enough evidence, it is his opinion “that anybody who knows or is familiar with the story believes that indeed Ellis Ruley was murdered and probably as a racial type of crime.”
Ingrid Zak, one of the participants of Sunday’s walk, came from Massachusetts to go on the walk, because she is very interested in African-American history and the arts. She said she was saddened to learn that a person who was so talented and appeared to be so happy was likely murdered, and paintings of his likely destroyed.
Hayes said word is getting out about the memorial park. People have come from the region, as well as from places outside the area, such as New York and Maine, to tour the property.
The Ellis Walter Ruley Memorial Park is also planned as a stop on the Norwich Freedom Trail, a walking tour the Norwich Historical Society is in the process of completing, she said.
Hayes said Sunday’s walking tour was a nice lead-in to the new exhibit, “Brought to Light: Ellis Walter Ruley in Norwich” at the Slater Memorial Museum, which features 18 of his original paintings, along with artifacts, students’ artwork inspired by Ruley, and a quilt depicting his life, home in Norwich and artwork. An opening reception was held Sunday afternoon and the exhibit will be on display through Dec. 7, with a celebration planned for Ruley’s birthday on Dec. 2.
She said there are also plans to submit some of Ruley’s artifacts to be included in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
By KIMBERLY DRELICH, The Day
Information from: The Day, http://www.theday.com
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