Survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre vow to stay alive 'until they get justice'

·National Reporter & Producer
·8 min read

At 101 years old, Hughes “Uncle Red” Van Ellis, one of three remaining survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, is determined to live as long as it takes to receive restitution, a century after his once thriving, majority Black, north Tulsa, Okla., community was destroyed by a violent white mob.

“Uncle Red told me with all sincerity and seriousness, he's gonna live to 130,” Damario Solomon-Simmons, a civil rights attorney for the survivors, told Yahoo News. “They don't plan to leave this earth until they get justice.”

Van Ellis, Solomon-Simmons and a host of supporters last Monday erupted into thunderous cheers and tears of joy in court, after a judge handed down a decision to allow their lawsuit — seeking reparations for the decimation of the former Black metropolis, known as Greenwood or “Black Wall Street” — to move forward. The defendants had sought to dismiss the case altogether, objecting that too much time has passed.

"I've never seen nothing like this happen," Van Ellis told CNN shortly after the judge’s ruling. "It's going to make people think. ... It's going to be better for everybody.”

Hughes Van Ellis, wearing a U.S. Army cap and a mask below his chin, speaks with great enthusiasm.
Hughes Van Ellis, a survivor of the Tulsa Race Massacre, testifies before a House Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee hearing on May 19, 2021. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

While it’s unclear what the next step in the legal proceedings will be, lawyers involved in the case say last week’s ruling was a major step forward for the plaintiffs, after dozens of lawsuits brought by others had failed.

“This has never happened [before],” Solomon-Simmons said. “There've been many, many, many attempts. Over a hundred lawsuits or so have been filed in the past, and we got to the next stage. We survived a motion to dismiss at this point.”

Solomon-Simmons and a team of more than two dozen lawyers have sued under Oklahoma’s public nuisance law, claiming that the destruction caused by the mob over 100 years ago continues to affect the Greenwood community today. The lawsuit wants the defendants to acknowledge that the massacre took place and to set up a fund for the survivors and descendants of the deadly attack, who continue to live with its damaging effects.

"[Our lawsuit] is based on bedrock Oklahoma state law,” Michael Swartz, another member of the plaintiffs’ team, told Yahoo News. “It has a broad public nuisance statute, and although public nuisance had been applied for a hundred years, people hadn't thought to apply it in this type of way.”

Viola Fletcher, left, holding a bunch of pink lilies, seated next to Hughes Van Ellis, wearing a blue vest saying: Thunder.                                                                                                                        and Hughes Van Ellis, both seated, attend a soil dedication ceremony for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., on Monday, May 31, 2021. (Photo credit: Christian Monterrosa/Bloomberg)
Viola Fletcher and Hughes Van Ellis attend a soil dedication ceremony for massacre victims in Tulsa on May 31, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/Bloomberg)

The seven defendants in the case — the city of Tulsa, the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Tulsa development authority, the Tulsa Metro Area Planning Commission, the Board of County Commissioners for Tulsa County, the sheriff in his official capacity and the Oklahoma military department — believe that what happened in 1921 was tragic, but that present-day officials should not have to atone for past wrongdoings.

John Tucker, an attorney representing one of the defendants, the Tulsa Chamber, argued last week that it’s been far too long to warrant a charge of public nuisance and that this alone cannot address what resulted from the massacre. Tucker did not return multiple requests for comment from Yahoo News.

In court, Tucker argued, “What happened in 1921 was a really bad deal, and those people did not get a fair shake ... but that was 100 years ago.”

The greatest argument against the defendants, however, may be arguments they made themselves. The plaintiffs say they plan to use some of the city officials’ past statements against them.

G.T. Bynum, mayor of Tulsa, at the podium in front of a bank of microphones and an American flag.
G.T. Bynum, mayor of Tulsa, addresses a news conference in June 2020. (Christopher Creese/Bloomberg)

For example, three years ago, in 2019, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said at a fundraising event, “In Tulsa, the racial and economic disparities that still exist today can be traced to the 1921 race massacre. The city as a whole suffers when economic inequality touches any neighborhood.”

That year, the president of the chamber, CEO Mike Neal, acknowledged that chamber leaders a century ago did not do enough to combat white supremacy.

“Their inaction and opportunism caused very real suffering and denied economic prosperity to the surviving Greenwood community, the effects of which are still felt in our city today,” Neal said.

It’s because of statements like these that attorneys for the plaintiffs are optimistic about the outcome of the case.

“Something we've all heard is that some people, particularly white people, might say, ‘But it was my ancestors. What do I have to do with it?’” Sara E. Solfanelli, another attorney with the plaintiffs' legal team, told Yahoo News. “That can be challenging to try to explain … [but] for this case, for this community, we're not talking about something that happened a hundred years ago. We're talking about something that's happening right now — to this day.”

A huge cloud of smoke billows over multistory buildings in Tulsa.
In this 1921 image, smoke billows over Tulsa during the massacre. (Alvin C. Krupnick Co./Library of Congress via AP)

Regardless of the defendants' point of view, Eric Miller, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who also works with the plaintiffs, told the Associated Press that “in public nuisance cases, it is clear either criminal acts or destruction of personal property” constitutes a nuisance.

The massacre at the center of the court case took place on May 31, 1921, when an angry white mob beat and killed hundreds of Black residents in Greenwood, which had earned the nickname “Black Wall Street” because of the success of its Black residents. Earlier that day, the Tulsa Tribune reported that a Black man had raped a white woman, although there were varying accounts of the incident. Confrontations between Black and white people broke out right outside the courthouse as the case was being heard.

Over the next two days, 35 city blocks, including dozens of businesses, went up in flames. There were widespread reports of looting, and more than 1,250 homes burned; 300 people were killed and 800 others were injured as the white mobs outnumbered Black residents who were forced to retreat into the Greenwood district. Generations of Black progress that had taken decades to achieve were wiped out in less than 48 hours.

A mural shows a woman raising her eyes to the heavens as she carries a man, a child laying his head on her shoulder.
A mural in Tulsa's Greenwood district depicts a woman and child holding a fallen man during the massacre. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Property claims documenting $1.8 million worth of damage, the equivalent of about $27 million today, were deemed obsolete, according to a 2001 state commission report. With most insurance paperwork and bank documents lost in the riot, almost all Greenwood residents had no restitution for their homes or businesses, and were unable to retrieve their funds from the banks.

The chief motive for the attack, experts say, was white resentment and disdain for Black advancement.

“You have a really successful Black business community across the Frisco tracks, literally across the tracks from downtown Tulsa,” Hannibal Johnson, author of “Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District” and the education chair for the Centennial Commission, told NBC News. “You have white people, some of whom are not doing well economically, who can look across those tracks and see Black people living in homes, driving cars, furnishing their homes with pianos, women wearing furs, all the trappings of economic success. And so there's that dissonance between what these people think ought to be, based on white supremacy, and what actually is. And one of the ways to harmonize that dissonance is to bring the Black folks down a peg through violence.”

At least 9,000 Black Greenwood residents were left homeless as result of the massacre, many of them living in tents well into the winter of that year, a far cry from the prosperity they had enjoyed months earlier.

A crowd of mixed ethnicity mills into the intersection of Cameron Street and Greenwood Avenue.
An event is held to dedicate a prayer wall at Vernon A.M.E. Church in Tulsa on May 31, 2021. (Christian Monterrosa/Bloomberg

For the remaining three survivors, Van Ellis, Viola Fletcher and Lessie Benningfield Randle, and their legal team, acknowledging in court what took place is a first step, and atoning for the legacy of the tragic events will go beyond helping the immediate Greenwood community.

“There's no dispute by anybody, not even by the defendants, of what happened,” Solfanelli said. “It was the worst act of domestic terrorism in our history.”

“When you repair one, whether it's one person or one community, that positive impact spreads from there,” she added. “So we're not just talking about repairing Greenwood. … It's going to help the entire city of Tulsa. It's going to help the entire state. It's gonna help our entire country, because when you do see one community rebuild, that absolutely spreads beyond.”

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

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