At 102, Survivor Fights for Restitution for Tulsa Race Massacre
By Emily Maxwell
April 6, 2023 (Updated Oct. 9, 2023)
Hughes Van Ellis and his wife, Mable, packed up their six children in the car to make the trek from Oklahoma to Denver, a vacation they had taken many times before. It was the 1960s, long before cell phones and GPS technology, which is why Mable had the entire trip mapped out ahead out time, including how many times they’d stop for gas. They were finally close to Denver, with the tank nearly empty, when they stopped at a station off the highway like others passing through the area. The attendant spouted racial slurs at their family and refused them service.
“My dad, to this day, will say you cannot be riding around with a quarter tank of gas,” said Malee Craft, the eldest daughter of the Ellis family, who remembered how relieved her parents felt once they were able to fill up at another station down the road.
It wasn’t the first or last time Ellis and his family experienced racism. As one of the last three remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, he fought for racial equity until his death on Oct. 9, 2023 at the age of 102.
Born in 1921, Ellis grew up when Jim Crow laws and segregation were the norm throughout the country. His family narrowly escaped one of the most violent race massacres in American history, but he didn’t learn the full extent of that traumatic event until just a few years ago.
When Ellis was just 5 months old and his sister Viola Fletcher was around 6 years old, their parents lived in the Greenwood District of Tulsa. Also known as Black Wall Street, it was a thriving Black community both economically and socially. On May 31, 1921, a white mob descended on the district.
“We didn't have an automobile, we couldn't afford one. So we had a horse and a wagon. So my dad managed to get us up and load the horse and the wagon and got us out of there,” said Ellis.
The mob burned Greenwood to the ground, destroying businesses, schools, homes and churches. More than 1,200 homes were lost, resulting in thousands displaced. Hundreds of Black residents were injured and detained. Between 100 and 300 were killed, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. The massacre completely destroyed a vibrant and successful community.
“You’re scared to sleep at night, you don't rest. It never leads your mind. Never,” said Ellis.
His sister, who is 109, still sleeps sitting up, as she’s done since fleeing the massacre in the middle of the night with her family. The trauma caused Fletcher to keep their family’s story of escape a secret from younger brother Hughes.
Ellis' sister and another woman, Lessie Benningfield Randle, who is 108 years old, are now the only two remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre. In 2021, Fletcher and Randle recalled the sights and sounds that have haunted them for more than a century before a congressional committee.
Many Americans aren’t aware of the horrific event, which is something the survivors hope to change by telling their story.
“People gotta know about it. That's what we are trying to do now. Trying to get people to know about history,” said Ellis.
“I went to public school, and we never heard about it,” said Craft, who grew up in Oklahoma. “My family never talked about it.”
Ellis started a new life about 50 years ago when he followed his children to Denver where they put down roots after college. He and his late wife moved to be closer to their family and they never left.
“Denver in the 1970s was the best time,” he said.
Until his death, he lived alone in a senior living facility through the Kappa Alpha Si fraternity in Park Hill. Despite his age, he still managed to travel internationally — he went to Ghana a few years ago with his sister and dreamed of going to Spain.
The survivors have made headlines in their push for restitution and reparations. They met President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, were interviewed by national media and met countless celebrities. They were all heavily involved with the foundation Justice for Greenwood and most concerned about future generations.
“See, I'm old. I'm retired. I want something done for young Black people. I want more colleges. I want to see more opportunities for Black people,” said Ellis.
A World War II veteran and former jitterbug dancer who loved rodeos, jazz, Western music (especially Dolly Parton), and The Andy Griffith Show, Ellis was a surprisingly youthful centenarian.
He was even on Facebook.
Ellis said his key to longevity was his love of people.
“I like to be around people. It don't matter what color you are or your nationality. I just love people,” he said. “As long as I’ve got somebody around me.”
Part of (Greenwood) district burned in race riots, Tulsa, Okla. Library of Congress, 1921.
Malee Craft holding black and white portrait of her parents, Hughes and Mable Ellis. By Emily Maxwell, 2023.