This is what is certain: 100 years ago, on Nov. 2, 1920 — the same day women voted nationally for the first time — the worst instance of Election Day violence in American history unfolded in a small Florida town west of Orlando.
And the perpetrators got away with what they did for the rest of their lives. There are no roadside markers in Ocoee as you might find in Selma, Ala., no excavation projects to locate the purported mass grave as in Tulsa. Until recently, many descendants of survivors had no idea they were descendants of survivors or that they had been robbed of a valuable inheritance long before they were born.
Now, after years of research, a new exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando has unearthed a crime long buried.
“Most of the people living in Ocoee don’t even know that this happened there,” said Pamela Schwartz, chief curator of the history center.
‘Neighbors for 30 years’
Ocoee was founded in the 1850s by a White man who brought 23 enslaved African Americans with him, Schwartz said. After the Civil War, many Confederate veterans resettled there, hiring Black laborers to work their land. Starting in 1888, many of those laborers were able to purchase the very acres over which they had been toiling from their White employers, bringing them wealth and security often denied to Black folks in the Jim Crow South.
Census records indicate that in 1920, about one-third of the town of 800 was Black. Though it isn’t accurate to say Ocoee was integrated, there wasn’t a Blacks-only neighborhood across the proverbial tracks, as you might find elsewhere in the South.
“It was interspersed. It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s a Black part of town, here’s a White part of town,’ ” Schwartz said. “These people were neighbors for 30 years before the massacre happened.”
After World War I ended in 1918, the same trends happening nationally took hold in Ocoee, too. Black veterans returned home expecting better treatment, as they got in Europe, but white-supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced to keep that from happening. Racist violence erupted all over the country in what became known as the Red Summer of 1919.
The fight for women’s suffrage further fueled those tensions. Many anti-suffragists argued that if women were permitted to vote, Black men might try to vote, too. Some suffragists denied this would happen, and some even argued that White women should be allowed to vote so they could act as a bulwark against any Black men who might try to exercise their rights.
In Ocoee, Black and White Republican leaders held clinics to show Black residents how to register to vote, pay a poll tax and cast a ballot. (The 24th Amendment banned poll taxes in 1962.)
A month before the election, two of the White leaders — attorney W.R. O’Neal and Judge John Cheney — received a threatening letter from the KKK. “We shall always enjoy WHITE SUPREMACY in this country and he who interferes must face the consequences,” it read. Across Florida — in Daytona, Jacksonville and Orlando — local KKK chapters held huge rallies to intimidate potential Black voters.
Florida may not spring to mind immediately when one thinks of the Jim Crow South, but in fact there were more lynchings there per capita than in any other state besides Mississippi, according to research by the Equal Justice Initiative. White Floridians used racial terrorism not just to intimidate voters but also to discourage labor organizing in the orange groves and turpentine farms.
‘Leave and get shot, or stay and burn’
Despite the threats, a handful of Black residents in Ocoee, both men and women, showed up to the polls on Election Day. In the morning, they cast their ballots without incident, according to two accounts. But in the late afternoon, a Black labor broker named Moses Norman showed up to vote. Election officials told Norman that he hadn’t paid his poll tax. He said he had, but he was turned away. Norman sought help from Cheney, the White judge, who advised him to try again. Again, he was turned away.
It is unclear exactly how or why, but that was the spark that lighted a racist inferno that burned Black Ocoee to the ground.
By the evening, a White mob had arrived from Orlando. A rumor spread that Norman was hiding out in the home of July Perry, a Black landowner and community leader in his early 50s who had been involved in the voter registration drive.
His house was surrounded by the mob. At some point, two White men were shot and killed — perhaps by Perry’s teenage daughter, perhaps by one another as they fired their weapons at the house. Then it went up in flames. So did a nearby AME church, where Norman and Perry were trustees, and at least two dozen other homes.
“Basically the options were leave and get shot, or stay and burn,” Schwartz said.
It may never be known exactly how many Black residents were killed that night. Newspaper accounts said six. Witnesses remembered many more, perhaps 30 or even 60. One person claimed two and a half “wagonloads” of Black bodies were dumped in a trench near a lake.
Research is ongoing, but Schwartz and her team have been able to confirm four. Three were unidentified burned bodies buried by a funeral home, which probably recorded the deaths only to seek compensation for the caskets. The other was July Perry.
Amazingly, the Perrys made it out of the house alive. His wife and daughter were taken to a jail in Tampa. Perry, shot in the leg, was taken to a jail in Orlando. Within hours, a lynch mob pulled Perry from his cell, and he was brutalized and killed. His body was left hanging in front of Cheney’s Orlando home.
No one was ever held responsible for any of the deadly violence. Agents for the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) showed up a few weeks later, but they made it clear they weren’t investigating murder, arson or assault. They were interested only in election fraud.
The leader of the mob later became the mayor of Ocoee.
‘He earned it’
These days, Robert Hickey is a retired educator in New York. But in the late 1940s and 1950s, he was raised by his grandparents in Apopka, Fla., while his mother worked as a maid up north. Those grandparents, Lucy and John Hickey, didn’t like talking about what they had survived decades earlier, but over the years, he pieced it together.
John Hickey had owned a lot of land in and around Ocoee, from which he sold lumber and produced turpentine. He did so well that he would even lend money to White people, Hickey said.
On the night of the massacre, his grandmother “was standing on the front porch of their house and watched all these homes going up in flames,” Hickey said. “So as it got closer to them, they fled into the swamps.”
The couple hid with the two children they had at the time in a hole left by a pine tree until the next night. Then his grandfather hooked up a wagon and sent his wife and children to stay with friends in a neighboring town without him. As a man, he was more of a target, and he didn‘t want his family to witness it if he got caught.
“She took the back roads to Apopka, and they were stopped by some White men on horses, but they allowed them to go forward,” Hickey said.
His grandfather walked through the forest and swamps and joined them a few days later.
Some people never returned to Ocoee after the massacre. But many did and tried to rebuild, only to be pressured into signing their land over to White people and leaving for good. Hickey’s grandfather bought one of his properties in 1911 for $200. A decade later, he “sold” it for $5. He moved with his family to Apopka and started over, eventually purchasing several houses that he rented to laborers in the orange groves.
But what happened in Ocoee stayed with him. “I could tell that something had happened to him that was really bad,” Hickey said of his grandfather. “He was very withdrawn.”
As part of their research, Schwartz and her team mapped out 44 properties lost by Black residents onto present-day maps, then valued them in today’s dollars. They also tracked down as many descendants of survivors as they could. They have held virtual tours of the exhibit for dozens of family members, and they’ve informed the families how much the stolen land is worth today.
That’s how Schwartz and Hickey met. His grandfather’s land, she told him, is now worth $750,000.
“I just heard this big sigh on the other end of the phone,” Schwartz said.
“A lot of people who were involved in the whole swindle were public officials,” Hickey said. “He earned it. He didn’t steal it, he didn’t take it, but it was stolen from him.”
Hickey said he spoke with a lawyer who represented descendants of the 1923 Rosewood massacre. A 1994 law has allowed hundreds of Rosewood descendants to attend Florida colleges tuition-free, one of the first examples of legislation making reparations to African Americans. Hickey wondered whether the law could apply to his family, since his grandparents experienced the same sort of terrorism inflicted on the residents of Rosewood in Ocoee. But the lawyer said no.
The properties that the history center has mapped so far are worth at least $10 million altogether.
Perry’s family was cheated out of his land, too. While his wife was still in jail in Tampa, she signed over the executorship of Perry’s land to Bluford Sims, a Confederate captain and Perry’s former employer. He posted an ad in the paper for “beautiful little groves belonging to the Negroes that have just left Ocoee.” After years of litigation, his children received about $100 each for land that sold for thousands.
‘Let sleeping dogs lie’
Ocoee was a Whites-only “sundown” town until the 1970s. But Black folks in the region never forgot what happened there. In the late 1990s, a local activist group, the Democracy Forum, pressed for town halls about the massacre, some of which included descendants of the perpetrators.
“Sometimes the sentiment was, ‘It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie,’ ” Schwartz said.
Fifteen years later and 35 miles away, a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford, Fla., sparking the Black Lives Matter movement.
In 2017, members of the Democracy Forum approached the history center with its archive of the massacre. They also asked for a 100th anniversary commemoration in 2020.
In 2018, the city released a proclamation acknowledging the massacre. A formal apology to descendants is in the works, and the Florida legislature has passed a law requiring that the Ocoee Election Day massacre be taught in Florida schools.
The property where the AME church used to be is now a Mexican restaurant. The main road is named for Bluford Sims, although there’s a petition to change it. A newer house stands where Perry’s home used to be. When reached by a Washington Post reporter, the homeowner said he “didn’t know anything about that” before ending the call.
This past summer, as the history center put the final touches on its exhibit, the nation erupted in protest after the killing of another Black man. One evening, one of the staff members went to a Black Lives Matter protest in Orlando, where she was surprised to see a young man holding up a sign that read: “July Perry. Ocoee, Florida. November 2, 1920.”
Jennifer Jenkins and Samantha Schmidt contributed to this report.
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