Hughes Van Ellis, Tulsa Massacre Survivor, Dies at 102

Hughes Van Ellis, one of three known survivors of the 1921 massacre in which a heavily armed white mob killed hundreds of black residents in Tulsa, Okla.., died Monday in Denver. He was 102 years old.

His death, at a veterans hospital, was confirmed by his daughter, Muriel Ellis Watson, who said in a telephone interview that her father had been receiving treatment for cancer that had recently spread to his brain.

With his death, only Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108, and Ellis’ sister Viola Ford Fletcher, 109, remain as the last known survivors of the massacre. The mob killed hundreds of black residents and burned much of Tulsa’s prosperous, mostly African-American Greenwood neighborhood to the ground in one of the worst racist terror attacks in US history.

On May 31, 1921, a black man, Dick Rowland, was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in an elevator in downtown Tulsa. After he was imprisoned, a group of armed blacks, fearing he would be lynched, gathered outside the county courthouse to ensure his safety.

Hundreds of white Tulsa residents called on the sheriff to turn Mr. Rowland over and, according to a 2001 report, Oklahoma Commission to Study the 1921 Tulsa Race RiotsThe black man’s gun went off when the white man tried to grab it.

A white mob spread through downtown Tulsa, shooting black people on sight and burning businesses in Greenwood. The destruction wiped out a thriving neighborhood known as Black Wall Street, where black entrepreneurs owned and operated restaurants, hotels, theaters and other businesses.

As many as 300 blacks were killed, and more than 1,200 houses were destroyed.

Charges against Mr. Rowland were eventually dropped. Authorities concluded that he most likely tripped and stepped on the woman’s leg, according to the commission’s report.

In 2020, Mr. Ellis, Mrs. Fletcher and Mrs. The Randles joined the descendants of other victims of the massacre in filing a lawsuit seeking reparations for the losses they suffered. The lawsuit names seven defendants, including the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, the Oklahoma National Guard and the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a telephone interview that he filed additional arguments with the court on Tuesday and emphasized the urgency of the matter, given the age of the remaining plaintiffs.

“We are in a race against time,” he added in a statement. “Neither the city of Tulsa nor the Tulsa County justice system should be allowed to move the finish line for the remaining survivors who fought with their last breath just to get their day in court.”

Hughes Van Ellis was born in Holdenville, Okla., on January 11, 1921. He was not yet 5 months old at the time of the massacre, after which his parents fled Tulsa with their six children, leaving their home and possessions, Mrs. Watson said. The family grew to eight children.

“Because of the massacre, my family was expelled from our house”, Mr. Ellis he told members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee May 2021. “We were left with nothing. We have become refugees in our own country.”

He was drafted and served in an all-black combat unit in World War II, Ms. Watson said. He and his wife, Mable V. Ellis, were married in 1942, eventually settling in Oklahoma City.

Mr. Ellis worked as a logger and as a mechanic at what is now Tinker Air Force Base, Ms. Watson said. He also worked as a janitor, gardener and gas station attendant, his daughter said. He and his wife had seven children and settled in Denver. Mrs. Ellis died in 2011.

In addition to his sister and Mrs. Watson, Mr. Ellis’s survivors include another daughter, Malee V. Craft.

After the Tulsa racial massacre, officials began erasing the city from the historical record. The victims were buried in unmarked graves. Police records are gone. Newspaper articles about it were removed before the pages were transferred to microfilm. Schools in Oklahoma they were not instructed to teach students about it until 2002.

Mr Ellis and the other survivors took the experience of the massacre with them 100 years on as they sought reparations and a measure of justice.

“The race massacre in Tulsa is not a footnote in the history book for us,” Mr. Ellis told a House subcommittee in 2021. “We live with it every day, and with the thought of what Greenwood was and what it could have been. ”

“We’re not just black and white images on a screen,” he added. “We are flesh and blood. I was there when it happened. I’m still here.”

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