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Hughes Van Ellis, who asked for justice over Tulsa Race Massacre, dies at age 102

Hughes Van Ellis, one of the last known survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, has died at age 102. He's seen here smiling at a rally commemorating the 100th anniversary of the massacre in June 2021 in Tulsa, Okla.
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Hughes Van Ellis, one of the last known survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, has died at age 102. He's seen here smiling at a rally commemorating the 100th anniversary of the massacre in June 2021 in Tulsa, Okla.

He was one of the last known living survivors of one of the worst events in U.S. history: the Tulsa Race Massacre, when mobs of white people waged an all-out assault on a thriving Black community.

Hughes Van Ellis died on Monday at age 102. He spent decades seeking compensation for the massacre — for himself, his family and his community.

"Please do not let me leave this earth without justice," Ellis said in 2021, testifying on Capitol Hill in a hearing to mark the centennial of the racist attack.

Ellis, who was known as "Uncle Redd," died on Monday in Denver, Colo., his family said in a statement shared with NPR by Oklahoma state Rep. Regina Goodwin.

He survived a brutal massacre

Ellis was just an infant in 1921 when Greenwood, a district that was once known as Black Wall Street north of downtown Tulsa, Okla., was destroyed.

His life and thousands of others were forever altered by the racist assault that left block after block of Black homes and businesses in cinders. Historians estimate approximately 300 people died in the violence, which lasted more than a day.

The tragedy began with rumors of a purported attempted rape in an elevator, involving a 17-year-old white woman who worked as an elevator operator and a 19-year-old Black man who worked nearby. That set off talk of a lynching, and rumors and tensions quickly escalated into violence.

"I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day," Ellis' older sister, Viola Fletcher, said in 2021. "Our country may forget this history, but I cannot."

Rather than intervene, the Tulsa police deputized nearly 500 white men and boys who had moments before been part of a lynch mob, instructing them to "Get a gun, and get a n*****," according to a history assembled by an Oklahoma state commission that quotes one of the recruits.

Some Black residents tried to defend themselves — but with bigger numbers and backed by airplanes and machine guns, white mobs systematically looted and burned Black-owned homes and businesses, one after another. Many Black people fled Tulsa into the countryside; more than 4,000 were forced into internment centers.

Ellis called for America to live up to its ideals

Ellis was the last of a handful of known survivors of the massacre, along with his sister Viola, who is 109, and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108. The three have steadfastly called for reparations over the obliteration of Greenwood, an affluent area of Tulsa that had two newspapers, a YMCA and a public library, along with multiple Black doctors and dentists.

But those efforts have been almost entirely unsuccessful; the survivors' lawsuit was dismissed this summer and is currently under review by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

"We were shown that in the United States, not all men were equal under the law," Ellis said of the legal setbacks. "We were shown that when Black voices called out for justice, no one cared."

"We are one," Ellis told lawmakers in 2021, urging them to work together. Shortly before he died, his loved ones say, they echoed those words as they continued to push for reparations.

"Mr. Ellis was assured we would remain steadfast and we repeated to him, his own words, 'We Are One' and we lastly expressed our love," his family said.

Twenty-two years after the Tulsa massacre, Ellis fought for the United States in World War II, serving in an anti-aircraft unit in a segregated U.S. Army.

"We were an all-Black battalion," Ellis said in 2021. "I fought for freedom abroad, even though it was ripped away from me at home, even after my home and my community were destroyed. I did it because I believed, in the end, America would get it right."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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