© 2024 Public Radio Tulsa
800 South Tucker Drive
Tulsa, OK 74104
(918) 631-2577

A listener-supported service of The University of Tulsa
classical 88.7 | public radio 89.5
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hughes Van Ellis, 1921 race massacre survivor, dies at 102

Hughes Van Ellis at a 2021 soil collection collection ceremony memorializing 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims
Matt Trotter
Hughes Van Ellis at a 2021 soil collection collection ceremony memorializing 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims.

Updated Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 3:50 p.m.

Hughes Van Ellis, one of the three remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, has died. He was 102.

Ellis was less than a year old in 1921 when he survived the massacre, in which a white mob killed as many as 300 people while razing Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street, in Tulsa.

Ellis, along with the other two living survivors — his sister Viola Fletcher, 109, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108 — have sued public agencies and parties for reparations for the massacre.

"Even at this age of 100, the Tulsa Race Massacre isn’t a footnote in the history books for us. We live with it every day," Ellis told Congress in 2021. He told U.S. lawmakers he was speaking to them “for justice from a lifetime of ongoing harm.”

Ellis testified before Congress that he and his family didn’t have much growing up. He said his family worried that what they did have would be stolen from them, especially since the courts didn’t tend to listen to Black people.

In World War II, Ellis fought in Southeast Asia with the 234th AAA Gun Battalion, comprised entirely of Black service members. He said he fought for the U.S. because he believed “in the end, America would get it right.”

“When I returned home from the war, I didn’t find any of the freedom I was fighting for overseas,” Ellis told U.S. lawmakers. “Unlike white servicemen, I wasn’t entitled to G.I. Bill benefits because of the color of my skin. I came home to segregation. A separate and unequal America. But still I believed in America.”

Ellis’ daughters stood in for him at a state legislative hearing in Oklahoma City last week examining the facts of the massacre and reparations. Fletcher and Randle were present at the hearing.

State Rep. Regina Goodwin, a descendant of a massacre survivor, spoke on behalf of Ellis, Randle and Benningfield at the hearing.

“When it comes to survivor and descendant victims’ compensation policy, some will say, ‘When does it stop?’ And what we say, some 100 years plus — ‘When does it start?’”

The survivors’ reparations lawsuit sues the city of Tulsa and six other parties. It cites the state's public nuisance ordinance, arguing the massacre impacts the city to present day.

A district court judge threw out the massacre survivors’ suit in July, but their lawyer has appealed the dismissal to the state supreme courtwhich agreed in August to consider the case.

Goodwin said in a statement that just before his death, Ellis “urged us to keep fighting for justice.”