Remembering Hughes Ellis
Hughes Van Ellis Obituary: Hughes Van Ellis, one of the last three known survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, died on October 9, 2023 at the age of 102. Ellis passed away at a veterans’ facility in Denver after battling cancer.
Ellis was just four months old when the massacre occurred in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood, a prosperous Black community also known as “Black Wall Street.” On May 31, 1921, a white mob descended on Greenwood, destroying homes, businesses, churches, and even a hospital over a 48-hour period of violence. An estimated 300 Black residents were killed, while thousands more, including Ellis’ family, were left with nothing after their properties were burnt down.
Ellis Fled to Safety as an Infant
When the violence erupted, Ellis’ family fled to safety with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Ellis grew up struggling in the aftermath of the destruction. “My childhood was hard and we didn’t have much,” he later recalled. “We worried what little we had would be stolen from us. Just like it was stolen in Tulsa.”
Fought for the U.S. in World War II
As a young man, Ellis served in the U.S. Army during World War II before returning home to fight a different battle. Known as “Uncle Red,” he joined fellow massacre survivors in demanding justice and reparations from the city of Tulsa, Tulsa County, the state of Oklahoma, and others.
Pursued Reparations into His 100s
Ellis continued to pursue reparations into his 100s, alongside his 109-year-old sister Viola Fletcher, who now outlives him. In 2021, at the age of 100, he testified with Fletcher and fellow centenarian survivor Lessie Benningfield Randle before the House Judiciary Committee.
Despite decades of work by Ellis and other survivors, their fight for justice remains unfinished. Ellis’ death at 102 leaves behind a legacy of resilience and determination in the face of unimaginable racism and violence. His lifelong struggle embodies the suffering of Greenwood residents whose lives were upended by the massacre, and whose pleas for justice continue to go unanswered over a century later.
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