published : 2023-10-12

Youngest Survivor of Tulsa Race Massacre Passes Away at 102

Hughes Van Ellis, who endured the notorious 1921 assault at just 6 months old, dies

Youngest survivor Hughes Van Ellis reflects on his experiences during the Tulsa Race Massacre. (Photo by ©JohnSmith/TimesPhoto)

Hughes Van Ellis, known as the youngest survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre and a relentless advocate for justice, has passed away at the age of 102.

Van Ellis, a World War II veteran and accomplished author, spent his later years fighting for reparations and seeking justice for his family and other descendants affected by the attack on 'Black Wall Street'.

Despite his age, Van Ellis remained actively involved in legal battles and was renowned for his passionate voice, which resonated in courtrooms, Congress, and interviews.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, one of the attorneys working on compensation for the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, described Van Ellis as more than a client, but a partner in the quest for justice.

Van Ellis was only 6 months old when he and his family managed to escape the harrowing events of the 1921 racial violence in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The late Hughes Van Ellis, a World War II veteran, shares his story of resilience and pursuit of justice. (Photo by ©EmilyDavis/CaptureCam)

The massacre began after tensions escalated when a white-owned newspaper published an exaggerated report of an alleged assault by a young Black man on a white girl. This led to a confrontation and violent clashes between the Black and white residents, resulting in the destruction of Greenwood, a thriving Black community also known as Black Wall Street.

Over the course of 18 hours, the white mob ravaged the area, leaving behind a devastating scene. The estimated death toll reached as high as 300, and approximately 10,000 Black residents were displaced.

Although Greenwood was later rebuilt, subsequent urban renewal projects and a highway development forced out many Black Tulsans from the area.

Van Ellis, who co-wrote a memoir with his older sister Viola Ford Fletcher, expressed his desire for the world to understand the profound impact and losses the Black community endured due to the Tulsa Race Massacre.

As he testified before Congress in 2021, his words became the foreword to Fletcher's memoir 'Don't Let Them Bury My Story'. Van Ellis firmly believed that justice was achievable in his lifetime, but acknowledged that there was still much work to be done.

Van Ellis testifies before Congress, urging for reparations for the survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. (Photo by ©SarahJones/CapturePro)

With Van Ellis's passing, only two survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre remain — Viola Ford Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randle. Their ongoing reparations lawsuit was dismissed by a lower court in July, but the Oklahoma Supreme Court has agreed to review the case.

Van Ellis is survived by his large family, including his daughters Mallee and Muriel Van Ellis.

Beyond his family, tributes poured in from elected officials, with State Rep. Monroe Nichols of Tulsa describing him as a giant whose legacy of patriotism and commitment to justice will continue to influence generations of Tulsans.

The passing of Hughes Van Ellis marks the loss of a crucial voice and a significant link to the painful history of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Yet, his relentless pursuit of justice and reparations will inspire others to carry on the fight.