Hughes Van Ellis, one of the last three known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, died Oct. 9 at a veterans’ facility in Denver, according to his family members. He was 102. The cause of death was cancer.
Ellis, who was known as “Uncle Red,” was one of three lead plaintiffs in a reparations lawsuit filed against the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the state of Oklahoma and the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. The lawsuit argues that the state of Oklahoma and Tulsa are responsible for what happened during the massacre, which historians believe left as many as 300 Black people dead, 10,000 homeless and the all-Black community of Greenwood destroyed.
In 2021, Hughes, then 100, with his sister Viola Fletcher, then 107, and a third survivor, Lessie Benningfield Randle, then 106, appeared before the House Judiciary subcommittee to demand reparations for the massacre, one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.
Hughes, a World War II veteran, broke into tears as he told the subcommittee how he fought for the United States overseas but had not received justice in his own country.
“Please do not let me leave this earth without justice, like all the other massacre survivors,” Ellis said.
Ellis watched recent developments in the case for reparations. Last week, the Oklahoma legislature heard a panel calling for the state to enact recommendations from the 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission. The commission, which was charged by the state with finding out what happened during the massacre, recommended reparations for massacre survivors and descendants, but city officials ignored the commission’s recommendations. The city also did not act on the commission’s recommendation to excavate for possible mass graves. In 2019, the city began digging for mass graves at its public cementery.
The massacre began on the evening of May 31, 1921, when a White mob descended on Greenwood, shooting Black people indiscriminately and burning more than 1,200 homes, hundreds of Black-owned businesses, churches, schools and a Black-owned hospital. Some survivors saw airplanes dropping turpentine bombs on houses.
After more than 48 hours of carnage, 35 square blocks of Greenwood were destroyed. When the massacre ended on June 1, 1921, according to historians and witness accounts, hundreds of survivors were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to march to camps, where they were held for weeks until White people vouched for them. According to the commission’s report, many were forced into labor without pay. Survivors also recounted seeing Black bodies dumped into the Arkansas River and into mass graves.
“The city police department and the county sheriff’s office deputized and armed white Tulsans to murder, loot, and burn the nearly 40 city blocks of the Greenwood District,” according to the reparations lawsuit. “The State National Guard participated with this angry white mob in killing and looting and destroying the property of Black residents of Greenwood. The city, sheriff, chamber, and county targeted Black community leaders and victims of the massacre for prosecution as instigators of the massacre — despite knowing who were truly responsible.”
Ellis waited until the very end to get justice, said Ike Howard, his grandnephew. “He told us to keep fighting. He said, ‘I have more things I want to accomplish.’ It was like he had a foot in both worlds, like he wanted to catch wings,” meaning die, “but he knew he had unfinished business. He had an undying sense of what was right and what was wrong.”