NewsNational NewsScripps News


Tulsa Massacre survivor shares story of survival, perseverance, hope

Hughes Van Ellis Sr.
Posted at 9:13 AM, Jun 01, 2021

One hundred years after his community was destroyed in the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the few remaining survivors of the harrowing event is sharing his experience.

Hughes Van Ellis and his sister, Viola Fletcher, are among the only living survivors of one of the most brutal attacks against Blacks on U.S. soil.

"We lost so much. I believe if all this hadn’t happened when I was a child they would’ve been better in life," Van Ellis said.

He was barely not even a year old when white mobs began burning homes and businesses around Greenwood, an area in Tulsa famously known as "Black Wall Street."

"My sister Viola told me, she said it was thought guns were going off," Van Ellis said. "Dad looked outside to see people getting gunshot, houses getting burned. So, there's only six little kids. I was a baby. So, my father just managed to barely get out, just with the clothes on our backs. We didn’t have time to get nothing else together."

They escaped with their lives. But Van Ellis says life was tough for him and his siblings after losing everything. He says they had to pick cotton to survive, even mentioning he didn’t receive his high school diploma until he was in his twenties after being drafted into a segregated military.

"Back then they had a Black army and they had a white army. You were treated differently than the white army. Sometimes you couldn't get supplies you needed in the Black army," Van Ellis said. "Sometimes they weren’t able to get you shoes, stuff like that, you know?”

Just married and expecting a baby, Van Ellis traveled with his unit to India and Saipan where he says they fought alongside the British in World War II.

"Back then there was a lot of wars going on. I'm going into the service. I just survived the drought. Now I'm going into the service and I'm taking another shot at my life," Van Ellis said.

But Van Ellis says he proudly served his country for two and a half years even though he faced discrimination.

"In the service you had a white fountain to drink out of, you had a Black fountain. Then you had a restroom. They had one stool for the Black guys and five, six stools for the other side," Van Ellis said. "It makes you feel bad. It just makes you feel so bad, you know? But you are in the service so you have to do your duty. So, you have to live with it."

Now he’s in a battle of a different sort — fighting for reparations. The 100-year-old man traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify before Congress with his sister, shedding light on how the Tulsa Massacre not only impacted him and his family but an entire community.

"I just...all those years I thought back about 100 years. I was six months old during this time. And the same thing goes on. Do it for justice. You're looking for something to get better," Van Ellis said. "I’m glad to have had the opportunity to go up there and do that. Because some guys in the state, your Congress in the state, they won’t do nothing for you."

Van Ellis' and Fletcher's testimony has had an impact. Fletcher's testimony was quoted by President Joe Biden in a proclamation regarding the massacre which was released Monday.

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home," Fletcher said. "I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.”

In his proclamation, Biden called on the federal government to "reckon with and acknowledge the role that it has played in stripping wealth and opportunity from Black communities" and asked Americans to "commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it."