It’s been 100 years. One hundred years since Black-Americans attempted to exercise their right to vote. One hundred years since an entire town was eviscerated and an unknown number of Black Americans were murdered. Those who survived fled, never to be seen or heard from again. The 1920 Ocoee Massacre is the largest act of voting day terrorism to date. The history of the U.S. is no stranger to racial violence, especially when it comes to disenfranchised groups. Fueled by racism, hatred, and fear, this history will always have an audience that clamors for more. As the election nears closer and record numbers of voters head to the polls, we are reminded of the horrendous events that occurred on Election Day 1920 in Ocoee, Florida. Accounts of long lines, threatening letters, and burned ballot boxes are being reported across the country recalling America’s ugly legacy of voter suppression.
A brief look at the political and socio-economic landscape gives insight into the increased racial tensions of the time and is perhaps best understood when evaluating the first World War. Fresh off of World War I, the U.S. saw many soldiers return home attempting to reintegrate back into a workforce that had decreased dramatically. Housing and labor shortages coupled with mounting racial violence led to increased tensions and a generalized resentment among Black-Americans. Black people had been coming to the aid of their country since The Revolutionary War and beyond. They responded no differently when the call to duty came again in 1914. Despite their mostly uncontested response to fulfill their civic duty, racial violence increased that led to massacres and other terroristic acts such as the 1917 East St. Louis Riots. Acts of violence such as this, coupled with ongoing racial suppression would only set the tone for continued events well into the end of the decade.
Formerly considered to be a sundown town, where all white communities utilized intimidation, violence, and other forms of discrimination, Ocoee, Florida is located in Orange County in Central Florida. At the time, Black-Americans made up about 46% of the population. Of the population were Moses ‘Mose’ Norman and Julius ‘July’ Perry, settlers from South Carolina, who’d relocated to the area in the late 1800s had both become very successful. Perry became a prominent leader in the black community as a deacon and labor leader and Norman owned land and was one of the first automobile owners in the city. Both were members of the local fraternal lodge.
With the recent ratification of the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote, one can only imagine the fear and disdain that ran rampant as more white supremacist ideals were being overturned. The ensuing push for dismantling segregation, equality, and political representation for blacks simply could not happen. Leading up to Election Day, the Klan continued their tactics to suppress and intimidate Black voters from exercising their right to vote by marching through the streets and threatening violence if voters showed up at the polls, but that didn’t stop everyone. On November 2nd, 1920, several Black voters turned out to vote but were turned away by poll workers and other dissenters. Among those voters was Norman who showed up at the polls and was also turned away for not paying a poll tax. Norman left, but at the direction of Republican, and U.S. Senate candidate, John Cheney, Norman returned to the polls to attempt voting again and capture the names of anyone being turned away and the officials involved in turning voters away. Norman was denied again and subjected to a search and seizure of a shotgun found in his car. Another account reveals that Norman’s car was searched by a white mob and that upon return to his car he was attacked. Norman escaped and fled to Perry’s home for safety.
Still angry, the recently deputized mob, led by a local resident and former Orlando Chief of Police came to Perry’s home to arrest both men. A gunfight ensued that resulted in Sam Salisbury, the mob leader, being injured along with Perry and his daughter. Two mob members were killed. Infuriated, the mob retreated only to return with assistance from nearby Orlando and the surrounding area in Orange County. The Perry’s had already retreated from their home. Mr. Perry was captured and transported to the hospital to treat his wound and was subsequently taken from the custody of a sheriff by the angry mob. Perry was lynched, shot, and strung up on a lamp post. The following 24-hours resulted in the murder and destruction of the northern half of Ocoee which was mostly occupied by Black-Americans. Although unclear, due to incomplete death certificates; it is reported that as many as 60 Black-Americans were murdered. Fires set by the angry mob destroyed several buildings and property owned by Black-Americans. Leftover property and remains were divided up and sold among the white residents via ads in the Orlando Sentinel.
In the months that followed, violent threats continued that drove remaining residents like George Betsy, who was found beaten and chained to an electric light post, out of town. They claimed he “talked” too much about the events of that day. By the following summer it is said that only a couple Black residents remained. Ocoee remained predominantly white through the Civil Rights Era. Census data shows that Black-Americans did not return to Ocoee until the 70s. Accounts of what happened would not be discussed again until 1986.
A lot can happen in a century yet, sometimes, history rears its ugly head in an attempt to make an encore appearance. In an effort to commemorate the past and learn from history, a special exhibit will be displayed until February 2021 to remember the events of that day.
Re: Racial Violence/WWI: https://time.com/5450336/african-american-veterans-wwi/
Re: Percentage of Black Residents in Ocoee: https://oppaga.fl.gov/Documents/Reports/19-15.pdf
Re: Women’s Right to Vote: https://tellersuntold.com/2020/08/31/the-19th-amendment-didnt-allow-all-black-women-the-right-to-vote/
Re: Black Voters Being Turned Away: https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/tdih/ocoee-massacre/
Re: July Perry Account of Events: https://oppaga.fl.gov/Documents/Reports/19-15.pdf
Re: Selling of Black Property: https://www.newspapers.com/newspage/313686461/
Re: George Betsy: https://www.ucf.edu/pegasus/the-truth-laid-bare/
Re: Ocoee Special Exhibit: https://www.thehistorycenter.org/exhibition/the-ocoee-massacre/