Skip to content

Hughes Van Ellis, Catholic Tulsa massacre survivor, dead at 102

The Denver resident was an infant refugee of the 1921 White mob attack in Oklahoma and was party to a lawsuit against the government at the time of his death.

Hughes Van “Uncle Redd” Ellis Sr. during an interview conducted by the City of Denver in 2023. (The Denver Local)

Hughes Van “Uncle Redd” Ellis Sr., a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, has died this week in Denver. He was 102 years old and no cause of death has been announced.

His passing on Monday was first announced by State Rep. Regina Goodwin of Tulsa, who shared a statement on behalf of the Ellis family. Goodwin led an interim study on massacre reparations at the state capitol, with Ellis in attendance, just days before his death.

“Mr. Ellis bravely served America, even as he spent a lifetime awaiting atonement,” the statement reads.

“[He] urged us to keep fighting for justice. In the midst of his death, there remains an undying sense of right and wrong.”

An infant at the time of the White Supremacist killing spree in his native Oklahoma, Ellis has been active in promoting the cause of himself; his older sister Viola Fletcher, 109; and Lessie Benningfield Randle, 108. The three have been parties to multiple lawsuits, including an active case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

“Uncle Redd was one of the fiercest and most inspiring champions for justice that I’ve ever had the honor of knowing,” said lead attorney Damari Solomon-Simmons of the Justice for Greenwood Foundation, who originally filed the case in 2020.

“The courage he showed us will not be in vain.”

Born in Holdenville, Oklahoma, in January 1921, Ellis was one of the thousands of African Americans terrorized during two days of bloodshed in Tulsa, which began with the arrest of a Black teenager and a subsequent armed confrontation between Black city residents and a White lynch mob.

The White perpetrators attacked and burned the prosperous Black district of Greenwood (aka “Black Wall Street”), killing as many as 300 and leaving the community in ruins. Hundreds more were injured and the exact number of displaced Black residents is unknown. 

Ellis, who fled the city with his family during the massacre, went on to serve in a segregated Allied battalion in World War II and worked as a sharecropper before moving to Colorado. He and his late wife Mable shared seven children and were members of Cure D’Ars Catholic Church, a historically Black parish in Denver. Ellis was also a faithful member of the Knights of Peter Claver.

In the century since the massacre, the survivors and their allies have struggled for justice, including a longstanding battle with the local government over the right to restitution. The city has long claimed that because the survivors are almost all dead, the government doesn’t owe any reparations.

Ellis and his fellow survivors recently made a number of high-profile media appearances, including the official massacre centennial commemoration in 2021, as knowledge of the event became common knowledge worldwide. While the lawsuit against government leaders made its way through the lower courts, Ellis testified before Congress on the need for reparations.

Hughes Van Ellis Sr., Lessie Benningfield Randle, and Viola Fletcher ride in a carriage in March 2021 during a centennial event for the Tulsa Race Massacre. (Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman/USA Today Network)

In an appearance on MSNBC this May, Ellis said the survivors had never received even an apology from the City of Tulsa, which allegedly gave assistance not to the fleeing Black victims of the massacre but to their attackers. The Oklahoma National Guard, also accused in the case, is also known to have removed thousands of Black residents from Greenwood into detention centers.

“People gotta know about it,” Ellis told The Denver Local in 2021.

“That's what we are trying to do now. Trying to get people to know about history.”

The most recent lawsuit was dismissed by conservative district judge Carolina Wall in July, but her ruling has since been appealed, with Oklahoma’s high court agreeing in August to hear the case. The survivors’ counsel filed a new brief this week, just days after the announcement of Ellis’ death. The defendants have until October 25 to respond.

“All we are asking the Supreme Court to do is give us the opportunity to get back into [district] court,” Solomon-Simmons said on Wednesday.

“This is not about the Supreme Court deciding if we’re ultimately successful. This is not about deciding what remedies we would receive. We are asking the law to be applied equally to everyone.”

Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum IV, a Republican who spoke positively of the dismissal of the lawsuit, sent his condolences to the Ellis family on Tuesday.

“Ellis endured the worst event in Tulsa history and has since shared his story with people around the world,” he said in a statement.

“The prayers of our city are with him and his family.”

Ellis’ funeral Mass has been announced for Saturday, October 28, at 11am MT, taking place at Cure D’Ars in Denver. A recitation of the Rosary will take place there on Friday at 6pm. Interment will take place at a later date at Fort Logan National Cemetery.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

Want to support the work of BCM? You have options.

a.) click to give (fee-free) on Zeffy

b.) click to give (fee-free) on Facebook