After spending his latter years fighting for justice for his relatives and other descendants of the assault on “Black Wall Street,” Hughes Van Ellis, the youngest documented survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, has died in hospice care in Denver. He was 102.
When he was six months old, Van Ellis and his family fled what is now largely regarded as one of the most extreme cases of racial violence in U.S. history. Tulsa’s once-thriving Black neighborhood was obliterated by a white mob in 1921.
On May 31, 1921, the white-owned Tulsa Tribune published a sensationalized narrative of an alleged attack by a nineteen-year-old black shoeshine against a 17-year-old white girl working as an elevator operator, leading to increased tensions between the city’s Black and white populations.
The shoeshine was arrested, and a Black militia formed outside the local prison to protect him from a lynch mob.
A second unrelated violent incident started a full-scale battle.
Between the evening of May 31 and the morning of June 1, a mob of white people waged a scorched-earth attack against Greenwood. Over thirty-five city blocks were burned, 191 businesses were lost, and over ten thousand Black people were forced to relocate.
Redevelopment projects and a highway forced black Tulsans out of Greenwood.
A historical report shows Tulsa, Oklahoma, had a population of over 100,000 in the first few months of 1921. The Greenwood District was home to the majority of the city’s black population of 10,000 people. There were black-owned businesses, two newspapers, churches, and a library.
Tulsa, however, was also a city with serious problems. Extremely high crime rates and vigilantism, such as the hanging of a white boy suspected of murder by a white mob in August 1920, plagued the city. The lynching victim was brought from a jail cell, and police did nothing to protect him.
Van Ellis told the media that he wanted the world to know what black Tulsans lost due to the slaughter while promoting a biography co-written by his elder sister, Viola Ford Fletcher (109), and grandnephew Ike Howard.
108-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle and Fletcher are the last Tulsa Race Massacre survivors after Van Ellis’ death.