Hughes Van Ellis' passing renews demands for Tulsa Race Massacre survivors to have their day in court

Tulsa, Oklahoma - Following the untimely passing of Hughes Van Ellis, legal experts are demanding swift action in the fight for reparations for the two remaining 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivors – before it's too late.

Hughes Van Ellis, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and World War II veteran, passed away on October 9, 2023, at the age of 102.
Hughes Van Ellis, 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre survivor and World War II veteran, passed away on October 9, 2023, at the age of 102.  © Brandon Bell / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Hughes Van Ellis, known by his loved ones as "Uncle Redd," was just six months old when his family was forced to abandon their home in Tulsa's Greenwood district, known as Black Wall Street. They fled for their lives as a murderous mob of white law enforcement officers and deputized civilians killed Black residents by the hundreds and razed the once-thriving neighborhood to the ground.

Ellis' family lost nearly everything they had. No matter what he did, even joining the US Army and serving in a segregated unit in Burma during World War II, the pain and deprivation Ellis and his community endured at the hands of white supremacists was never properly addressed, and he continued to suffer from racial discrimination throughout his long life.

Undeterred by the obstacles in his way, the centenarian vowed to fight until his dying breath for reparations for the atrocities he experienced firsthand. He never wavered in his belief that America could one day live up to its ideals of "liberty and justice for all."

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Ellis stuck to his word, but unfortunately, America did not keep its promise to him. The beloved community elder passed away in Denver, Colorado, on Monday at the age of 102 – without experiencing the justice he fought so long to achieve.

"Uncle Redd, he was just an amazing individual," attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said during a Wednesday press conference at the Greenwood Cultural Center. "He deserved to see justice before he passed, and he wanted that."

"He was so passionate about this community, about Black Wall Street, Greenwood, and the community receiving justice, and he felt so honored to be at the forefront of fighting for that," he continued. "It's just a huge loss."

"Time is of the essence"

Hughes Van Ellis, alongside his attorney, Damario Solomon-Simmons, delivers testimony during a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing on May 19, 2021.
Hughes Van Ellis, alongside his attorney, Damario Solomon-Simmons, delivers testimony during a House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties hearing on May 19, 2021.  © IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Ellis' passing has imbued the legal battle for repair for the two remaining survivors – Ellis' sister, Viola Ford Fletcher (109), and Lessie Benningfield Randle (108) – with a renewed sense of urgency.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court in August agreed to review an appeal after a lawsuit seeking restitution for Fletcher, Randle, and Ellis was shot down by conservative Judge Caroline Wall in July.

The suit accuses the City of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the Tulsa Regional Chamber, the Oklahoma National Guard, and other defendants of violating the state's public nuisance law. The groundbreaking approach allowed plaintiffs to avert potential issues over the statute of limitations for damages – a tool used to negate previous claims for redress.

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Attorneys behind the case have also argued that the City of Tulsa is profiting off survivors' suffering by taking in tourism money associated with the massacre – without directing those resources back into the harmed community.

The Justice For Greenwood team is in the process of seeking approval for the case go to trial, and they are asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to reverse Judge Wall's decision as soon as possible so the survivors can finally have their day in court.

There is no time to lose in the quest for justice. On November 10, Randle will turn 109 years old, while Solomon-Simmons expressed concerns over Fletcher's health after her little brother's loss.

"Time is of the essence, and all we're asking the Supreme Court to do is give us the opportunity to get back in the court," Solomon-Simmons insisted.

Cover photo: Collage: BRANDON BELL / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

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