Hughes Van Ellis, Tulsa Race Massacre survivor, has died without receiving reparations

Denver, Colorado - Hughes Van Ellis, a World War II veteran and survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, has passed away at 102 without receiving reparations for the racist atrocities he endured.

World War II veteran Hughes Van Ellis, one of the last three known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, has passed away at the age of 102.
World War II veteran Hughes Van Ellis, one of the last three known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, has passed away at the age of 102.  © Brandon Bell / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

Known as "Uncle Redd" among his loved ones, Ellis was just six months old when a violent mob of white law enforcement officers and deputized civilians attacked Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood, a thriving community known as Black Wall Street, on May 31-June 1, 1921.

The Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the deadliest acts of racial violence in US history, saw a white mob kill hundreds of Black Americans and decimate thousands of buildings and homes in a murderous rampage. Attackers even dropped fire bombs on the community from decommissioned US military planes.

Ellis' family struggled to get by after the massacre took away nearly everything they had. His sister, Viola Ford Fletcher (109), recalls in her recently published memoir, Don't Let Them Bury My Story, passing terrified neighbors running for their lives or lying dead in the streets as her family tore out of town on a horse-drawn wagon.

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After the massacre, authorities immediately sought to cover up the crimes by destroying police records and burying bodies in unmarked mass graves.

The survivors and Greenwood descendants have not received any compensation after the coordinated white-supremacist assault. Instead, what they have gotten is more than 100 years of gaslighting as stark racial disparities persist across wealth, education, employment, housing, health, and the criminal legal system.

Despite the hardships he endured in America, Ellis chose to serve in the US Army during World War II. He was assigned to a segregated anti-aircraft battalion in Burma.

"A WWIl, war veteran, Mr. Ellis, bravely served America, even as he spent a lifetime awaiting atonement related to the Tulsa Race Massacre," Oklahoma state Representative Regina Goodwin, a Greenwood descendant, shared in a statement.

"Two days ago, Mr. Ellis urged us to keep fighting for justice," she continued. "In the midst of his death, there remains an undying sense of right and wrong. 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."

Hughes Van Ellis' lifelong fight for reparations

Hughes Van Ellis sits among family members during a service at Action Chapel International church in Accra, Ghana, on August 15, 2021.
Hughes Van Ellis sits among family members during a service at Action Chapel International church in Accra, Ghana, on August 15, 2021.  © NIPAH DENNIS / AFP

Ellis did not let his advanced years hold him back in his fight for acknowledgment and repair for the Tulsa Race Massacre survivors and their descendants.

The centenarian, along with his sister and fellow survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle (108), launched a historic lawsuit seeking compensation and restitution for the horrors he experienced in 1921 and ever since. The Oklahoma Supreme Court in August agreed to review an appeal after the suit was shot down by conservative Judge Caroline Wall earlier this summer.

On May 19, 2021, Ellis shared a powerful testimony before Congress, saying, "The Tulsa Race Massacre isn't just a footnote in the history book for us. We live with it every day, and the thought of what Greenwood was and what it could have been."

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"We aren't just black-and-white pictures on a screen; we are flesh and blood. I was there when it happened. I am still here," he continued. "We are not asking for a handout. All we are asking for is a chance to be treated like a first-class citizen who is truly a beneficiary of the promise that this is a land where there is 'liberty and justice for all.'"

While the US government has so far failed to give the survivors their due and many city and state authorities continue to deny the nature and scale of the massacre, Ghana has embraced Ellis and Fletcher with the respect and honor they deserve. The siblings embarked upon the journey of a lifetime to the West African country in 2021, where Ellis was made a chief and dubbed "Ike Ohe Ndi Igbo" ("Strength of the Igbo") and "Nii Lante" ("Loves helping other people because he has a kind heart"). In March of this year, the two were granted dual citizenship in a special ceremony.

With his passing, Ellis has left behind many loved ones and a legacy of strength, resilience, and fearless truth-telling as the fight for justice for Greenwood lives on.

Cover photo: IMAGO / MediaPunch

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