Alumnus feature on Sophia Holley Ellis

Sophia Holley Ellis

(B.A. Biology and German 1949, M.S. Botany 1950, M.A. German 1964)

Sophia Holley Ellis retired in June 2006 after 56 years as a biology and German teacher in the Detroit Public Schools. Over the years, she has privately funded several students’ college education. Now, through a $25,000 gift creating the Sophia Holley Ellis Scholarship endowment, Ellis will extend her support to students with financial need in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts – with priority given to students from the Detroit Public Schools. The scholarship was established in June 2009 with the first one awarded during academic year 2011-2012.

“The University is the reason I am,” said Ellis. “When I came to campus I had never used a telephone, never seen a movie or been to a restaurant. As a young black girl, if it hadn’t been for the U-M, I wouldn’t have had the chance to do so many things. I hope this scholarship will bring kids like me to Michigan—students who are smart but just wouldn’t have the money to come to our great school otherwise—the kids who are dreamers.”

Antoyrie Green, the first student to receive the Ellis Scholarship said that this award meant so much to her for two reasons: “how much of burden it took off of my parents when I received the scholarship” and “how inspirational Sophia and her story are.”

“I love to compare Sophia and her scholarship to a ram in the bush,” referring to a bible verse. “I didn't know how I was going to get the last bit of money to pay for school, but God blessed me with that scholarship and I will be forever thankful!

“As a black woman on the campus of the University of Michigan, I am inspired to hear stories like Sophia's. Stories of black women who came before me, defied all the odds, and pursued (and reached) their dreams only push me to do the same. 

“As for my future, I plan on becoming a clinical psychologist for children, hopefully in Detroit. After learning about Sophia and her career as a teacher in Detroit, I can only image the huge impact she has had on her students. I hope that I am able to impact the life of someone half as much as she did and that one day, my story will inspire someone just as her story has inspired me!”

Through the years, Ellis also taught earth science, horticulture, physical science, and ecology when it was a brand new discipline. Ellis taught in kindergarten classrooms, elementary, middle and high schools up to Wayne County Community College.

The world was a different place when a bright, energetic, young Sophia Holley Ellis was a student at the University of Michigan in the 1940s and 50s. At 85 years young, she has many wonderful memories and stories.

Ellis was the first African American to study at the U-M Biological Station. She recalls her pantomime on skit night when she acted out washing an imaginary grown male African elephant using a stepladder, pail of water, bar of soap and towel. “I thoroughly 'washed' every anatomical part of that elephant and the zoologists roared with laughter,” she recalls fondly.

She was a modern dancer and a ballerina at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in performances throughout her undergraduate and graduate years, including the Marriage of Figaro, Barber of Seville, Carmen and Coppélia. But her participation was not without some controversy. Theater administration at the time wanted her off the stage because she was black. The coordinator of the dance program, Esther Pease, threatened to take the whole ensemble off the stage. “I really admired Esther for that,” said Ellis.  

Even so, the young dancer had to make herself up to look white, with opaque leotards, grease paint on her hands, makeup and even putty on her nose. She didn’t mind – she thought of it as acting. “I felt sorry for people who were racist,” she said. “When churches didn’t allow me in, I knew that God wasn’t there.”

Originally, Ellis dreamed of becoming a world renowned scientist, inventing cures that would eradicate society’s ills and ailments, according to an article in The Michigan Citizen. When she told her godfather, Victor Julius Tulane (U-M M.S., Ph.D. 1932-34) that she wanted to be a research biologist like him, he told her to learn German, get all As and attend the University of Michigan. Her mother searched through static and found the German-American hour on the radio. In that era, the greatest scientists were German.

Her Northern High School counselors couldn’t grasp the idea that a “little black girl” wanted to go to college. Upon graduation they told her they’d find her a job— as a maid. Uninterested in that profession, Ellis attended the University of Michigan on a full academic scholarship where she said “the world opened” and she decided to be a teacher. In 1950s Detroit, black teachers, regardless of what classes they were certified to teach, were confined to certain schools. Ellis remembers being told by school administrators, “It’s best you teach your own kind.”

Ellis has come a long way since those days. She was named the Phyllis Layton Perry Educator of Year in 2006 by the National Council of International Visitors (NCIV), U.S. State Department.In 2012, Ellis was named a Citizen Diplomat by the NCIV, which honors an individual or institution who, motivated by a deep understanding of world issues and a commitment to the exchange of persons and ideas, has achieved a recognized standard of excellence in furthering the cause of international and mutual understanding. She is included in a booket called "A Tribute to Citizen Diplomats,” in which she is quoted along with famous people such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Mohandas Ghandi, Roman Herzog, and many more. For her efforts toward improving the U.S.-German relationship, Ellis received the German Federal Republic’s highest citizen award, the Federal Cross of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz) in 1995.

Ellis is never bored. Up until recently, she taught German and piano. She’s currently studying Arabic, attends the symphony, loves to read, play the piano, and she even knows a little Russian. And, “all the while, I’ve kept on dancing,” Ellis said.