Photos Sam Levrault Media
The cause was great, making it an occasion not to be missed. So, an inspired crowd showed up for the memorable event: Tulsans and out-of-town guests, Blacks, whites, Native Americans, seniors, teenagers and toddlers, some in families, others solo, celebrities, and just plain folk. The requested dress code was white attire, and the guests gladly followed suit.
Women wore Sunday goto meeting cream-colored dresses, milk-colored pantsuits, or other white outfits. Men donned white suits. Wherever they came from and however they showed up, the crowd at the Greenwood Cultural Center on Friday evening, Nov. 9, was singular and heartfelt in rising to the cause: to celebrate the life of Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Hughes Van Ellis. Hughes, widely known as Uncle Red, died on Oct. 9 in Denver, Colo., at 102.
The tributes to Uncle Red flowed freely throughout the evening. St. Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-73), the mistress of ceremonies, launched the evening by highlighting Van Ellis’ dignity. Goodwin’s speech opened a floodgate of other speeches. By the end of the evening, more than two dozen well-wishes had risen to sing Van Ellis’ praises.
A big birthday
The following night, Nov. 10, dozens of well-wishers packed into the Ben E. Hill Community Center, 210 E. Latimer, to raise a glass and say uplifting words for Lessie Benningfield Randle on the occasion of her 109th birthday. It was an upbeat celebration. Live music highlighted by Old School tunes, a catered dinner of barbecue, birthday cake and other treats, and a rush of accolades for Randle made it all the more festive. Purple and pink were the theme colors of the evening, making for a room full of brightly dressed guests.
Goodwin, whose position as a state representative representing much of north Tulsa and oratory skills have pivoted her into the role of community impresario, was toastmaster of the evening.
With the back-to-back events, Tulsans and visitors celebrated the extraordinary lives of two north Tulsans. Both Van Ellis and Randle were locals whose distinction as survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the bloodiest event recorded in the city’s history, pirouetted them into national and international renown. Beyond marking unique life passages for both of them, the twin events were a way for Tulsans and others to raise up and remember that critical, impactful episode in Tulsa’s history.
We will always remember
“Although we lost one important community member, there are generations of others who have followed. And we will always remember the legacy of Uncle Red,” said Goodwin.
With Van Ellis’ passing, only two of the known race massacre victims are still living: Randle and Viola Fletcher. Van Ellis’ sister, 109-year-old Viola, known as Mother Fletcher, also attended Uncle Red’s celebration of his life.
The Greenwood Cultural Center, the setting for the Van Ellis event, could not have been more appropriate. The popular north Tulsa community gathering spot is located on the hallowed ground where the bloody massacre of 1921, which Van Ellis survived, occurred.
During the Friday evening gathering, several local officials voiced warm accolades for Van Ellis. Besides Goodwin, Tulsa City Councilwoman Vanessa Hall Harper, School Board Member Jennettie Marshall, St. Rep. Monroe Nichols all rose to offer remarks. Tiffany Crutcher, executive director of the Terence Crutcher Foundation, read a statement honoring Van Ellis from Pres. Joe Biden.
Malee Craft and Muriel Watson, Van Ellis’ daughters, also offered words of praise for their father. Van Ellis “worked hard to support us,” Watson told The Oklahoma Eagle in an interview. “And he worked to make sure the descendants of the race massacre will not be forgotten. I am sure that, knowing that this work will be continued, he is now resting in peace.”
Ed and Lisa Mitzen, heads of a New York-based philanthropic organization, Business for Good, also rose to the podium to remember Van Ellis’ role as a veteran and recall how he faced enormous obstacles with good humor.
Business For Good donated $1 million to Van Ellis and to the other two race massacre survivors in 2022. They were among the dozens of guests who traveled from out of state to attend the ceremony.
Besides the tributes, the evening’s program included some artistic performances. Malinda Craft staged an interpretative dance to the tune of “Never Give Up.” And Valarie Harding closed off the evening with a touching rendition of Bill Wither’s song “Lovely Day.”
Epitome of a good woman
The next night, the crowd carried forth the celebratory spirit at Randle’s birthday party. The evening started with a song tribute in Randle’s honor. From there, a line-up of speakers stood by Mother Randle and serenaded included Randle’s eldest son, Warren Randle Jr., and Hughes Van Ellis’ daughter, Muriel Watson.
“Mother Randle is the epitome of a good woman,” Watson told the crowd. “She taught me everything and helped make me the man I am today,” Warren Randle said.
The public was invited, so the crowd of well-wishers filled the center, chatting, eating barbecue and cake, and lifting Randle and her rich life.
Many guests brought flowers and gifts for Randle. Joyce Smith Williams, a north Tulsa community advocate, offered a Citrine necklace and earrings, which she custom-made for the birthday celebrant. The stones are said to increase mental and physical strength. Williams presented a similar set to race massacre survivor Mother Fletcher at her 109th birthday party earlier this year.