US History

Tulsa Massacre Survivor Shares Story of Survival, Perseverance, Hope

1921 Tulsa Massacre survivor proudly fought during WWII. Now the Army Vet tells Newsy he's in a battle of a different sort — a fight for reparations.

Tulsa Massacre Survivor Shares Story of Survival, Perseverance, Hope

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

This is Hughes Van Ellis. He and his attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons sat down with Newsy to share his story of perseverance and hope following the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. He and his sister Viola Fletcher are among the only living survivors of one of the most brutal attacks against blacks on U.S. soil.

He was barely one 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. Dad looked outside to see people getting gunshot, houses getting burned. So, there's only a 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," Van Ellis said. 

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 along side of the British Army. 

"How did you feel knowing that your family just endured all this from your country doing this to you and your community and now you're being forced to go fight for them. What did that make you feel?" Terace Garnier asked.

"It made me feel like, Am I going to make it? 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. 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, you know. So, you have to live with it," Van Ellis said. 

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, 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 6 months old during this time. And the same thing goes on. Do it for justice. You looking for something to get better. I’m glad to 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 added.