On his 101st birthday, survivor of Tulsa Race Massacre waits for justice

by Deon Osborne, Associate Editor
Van Hughes Ellis

The youngest of a trio of the last known living survivors of one of the nation’s most horrific attacks against Black people wants more than cake for his 101st birthday. Hughes Van Ellis wants justice.

“The Judge needs to move our case forward. My Birthday Cake is sweet but Justice would be sweeter,” Van Ellis said in a statement shared by Public Radio Tulsa’s Chris Polansky.

“Uncle Red” Hughes Van Ellis shares a quest for reparations with his sister “Mother” Viola Ford Fletcher and third survivor “Mother” Lessie Benningfield Randle, both of whom turned 107 in 2021.

Ultimately, the summer of 2021 was filled with events commemorating the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and honoring the last known living survivors and descendants. Meanwhile, the City of Tulsa has refused to provide financial restitution for its role in enabling the killing of up to 300 Black Greenwood residents and the destruction of 35 square blocks of Black Wall Street.

ghana tulsa race massacre horse drawn carriage lessie benningfield randle

The last three known living survivors in a horse-drawn carriage during commemoration events honoring the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Hughes Van Ellis (left), Lessie Benningfield Randle (center) and Viola Fletcher (right). May 2021 (Mike Creef / The Black Wall Street Times)

Seeking justice a century later

In fact, though the City has applauded the creation of a new museum and landmarks that provide tourism opportunities for the Greenwood District, Tulsa attorneys have been quietly fighting to dismiss a lawsuit that, if successful, would force the city and State of Oklahoma to provide reparations to the community.

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Deputized by the city of Tulsa, encouraged by local media, and aided by planes dropping bombs on the community, White citizens burned and destroyed 35 square blocks in a matter of hours. While armed Black men in Greenwood, fresh from their tours in the World War, bravely defended their community as long as they could, they were incredibly outnumbered.

In the aftermath of the Massacre, the city of Tulsa withdrew responsibility by turning over relief efforts to the Red Cross to help the community rebuild and attempted to rezone the area to confiscate land and discourage residents from rebuilding their homes. The National Guard forced men to work manual labor as thousands of remaining Greenwood residents toiled in detention centers for up to 18 months.  They were only able to leave if a White person vouched for them.

tulsa race massacre reparations

Tulsa Race Massacre photo. Boy holds deceased sibling.

City, State avoid reparations

In a historic and surprise move, a former leader of the Oklahoma National Guard honored survivor Hughes Van Ellis and apologized on behalf of the National Guard for its role in the destruction and indignities Greenwood residents suffered. During a summer of heightened attention on the 100-Year Centennial of the Massacre, the City of Tulsa also formally apologized through its city council, perhaps the first formal apology in a century.

Yet, Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum has said providing reparations would be too “divisive, according to Vice (at the 10:30 mark of the video below).

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For its part, the State of Oklahoma has been sitting on a 21-year-old investigative report of the Massacre which clearly recommended several forms of reparations owed to Greenwood.

They include: making direct payment of reparations to survivors and descendants, creating a scholarship fund available to “students affected by the riot,” establishing an economic development enterprise zone in the Historic Greenwood District, creating a memorial for the “riot” victims and for the burial of any human remains found in the search for unmarked graves.

While the city has made efforts to bring more investment into Greenwood, it angered many in the community when it rushed through a reburial of exhumed massacre victims before properly identifying them.

Mass grave Tulsa Massacre

Palpable frustration and anger filled the air as members of the community watched the City of Tulsa rush through a reburial of 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre victims. (Photo by Mike Creef / The Black Wall Street Times)

Attorney pursues justice for trio of survivors

Meanwhile, civil rights attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons represents the three living survivors in a lawsuit seeking justice. He and his clients appealed to Congress last year in a series of emotional testimonies demanding the world force the city and state to deliver restitution for the century-old harm.

Even as city attorneys attempt to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it’s not valid, attorney Solomon-Simmons is using a new approach to seeking restitution. Using an Oklahoma public nuisance law, Solomon-Simmons expressed confidence that he would be successful in gaining justice for Greenwood.

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“The abatement of a nuisance does not prejudice the right of any person to recover damages for its past existence…No lapse of time can legalize a public nuisance, amounting to an actual obstruction of public right,” according to state law. The lawsuit currently sits in a Tulsa District Court, waiting for a judge’s decision on whether to proceed or dismiss.

In asking for the judge to move forward, Hughes Van Ellis echoed sentiments he shared last summer in his appeal to Congress.

ghana survivor department of justice mass grave

Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Hughes Van Ellis and survivor Viola Fletcher are honored in Ghana. Photo credit: Ayana Baraka.

Pursuing reparations as long as it takes

“We are not asking for a handout,” Hughes Van Ellis said, addressing the House Judiciary Committee on May 19, 2021. “We are asking for a chance to be treated like a first-class citizen.”

“I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home,” his sister, Viola (Mother) Fletcher testified. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street, I still smell smoke and see fire.”

Leslie Randle (Mother Randle), who was six years old at the time of the massacre, called on Congress to act where the city has failed.

“I survived the 1921 race massacre and I have survived a hundred years of pain after,” she said. “By the grace of God, I am still here… I believe that I am still here to share it with you. Hopefully, now, y’all will listen to us.”

The appeals have been heard from leaders as high up as President Biden, who toured Greenwood and gave a speech pledging investment in Black communities torn apart by racist policies and actions. Yet, he refused to utter the word reparations.

Nevertheless, the trio have vowed to use their twilight years pursuing justice. The answer to whether they believe they’re owed reparations is clear. It remains to be seen whether the city and state will honor their plea or allow the clock to run out on their time here on Earth.

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