100 years ago in Florida, the worst incident of Election Day violence in U.S. history occurred

Mildred Europa Taylor Nov 3, 2020 at 09:30am

November 03, 2020 at 09:30 am | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

November 03, 2020 at 09:30 am | History

Unveiling Historical Marker for July Perry. Photo: orangeobserver.com

“If you want to honor your ancestors, vote”.

Those were the words of Jacqueline Perry Blaylock, the great grand-niece of July Perry, who was killed alongside dozens of African Americans by a white mob 100 years ago in Orange County, Florida, in what became known as the Ocoee Massacre.

The bloodiest day in modern American election history, the Massacre occurred after a Black citizen, Mose Norman, tried to exercise his right to vote on Election Day at a polling location in Ocoee but was turned away. Amid the violence that followed, homes and properties of Black families were set on fire by a white mob, and at least 50 Blacks and two whites died.

The entire Black community of Ocoee had to also flee the town. On Monday, Orlando and Orange County leaders met with descendants of the victims at a new exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center on the 100th anniversary of the dark day in Florida’s history.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a proclamation declaring November 2, 2020, as 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre Remembrance Day in Florida. “On the 100th anniversary of this bloody day in our state’s history, Floridians should honor the memory of the victims of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre, and remain vigilant against hatred, persecution, and tyranny of any kind,” the proclamation reads.

Conservative Democrats in the decades since the end of Reconstruction, had politically dominated Ocoee, Florida, using various tactics, including violence, legislation and intimidation to keep Black people, who were then mostly Republican, from the polls.

Ahead of the 1920 elections, however, scores of Black organizations across Florida started organizing voter registration campaigns. Black people in Ocoee began registering to vote in their numbers, a move that threatened white supremacy, according to historians.

In fact, the Ku Klux Klan, on the day before the election, paraded through the streets of the two Black communities in Ocoee late into the night with robes and crosses, according to a report. “With megaphones they warned that ‘not a single Negro will be permitted to vote’ and if any of them dared to do so there would be dire consequences,” the report added.

On Election Day on November 2, some Black people showed up at polling locations in Orange County in an attempt to vote but were denied. Many were threatened with violence while others were told by poll workers that their names were “mysteriously” not present in the voter registration rolls.

Black farmer Norman would have none of it. Accounts say that when he was first turned away from the polls in his Ocoee precinct in the morning, he went to see a well-known Orlando lawyer and Republican Senate candidate who asked him to go back to the polling location to exercise his fundamental constitutional right, the right to vote.

The lawyer, only described as Cheney, asked Norman to write down the names of Black people who were denied the right to vote and the names of the poll officials who were sending Black voters away in order to prepare a lawsuit to contest the violation.

But when Norman went back to Ocoee with some other Black people demanding to vote, things turned out badly. He was not only turned away for the second time, but a mob of armed white men decided to hunt him down. That evening, the mob came to the home of Perry, a Black landowner, in search of Norman. Shooting broke out and in the process, two white men, who were law enforcement officers, died. Perry’s wife and daughter managed to escape from the back of the home.

Perry, who was badly injured, was eventually caught by the angry mob and killed. A report states that his dead body was hung from a telephone post by the highway from Ocoee to Orlando to intimidate other would-be Black voters.

The mob, among them members of the Ku Klux Klan, subsequently burned down homes and businesses within the Black community in Ocoee. Almost all of the African Americans in Ocoee had to flee the town and never returned for decades. Norman was among those who fled from Ocoee. He lived in other parts of Florida before later moving to New York City. To date, it is still unclear how many Black people died in the Ocoee incident though some accounts say the figure is not less than 50.

“Nobody, nobody was convicted in this event,” Pam Schwartz, the Florida museum’s chief curator was quoted by FOX13. “An entire community burned to the ground and people murdered and nobody was found guilty of that. Nobody paid for it — and that local government had a hand in covering that up and allowing it to happen.”

For many, the Massacre was planned to enable white residents to seize the property of the wealthiest Black people in the town, considering the various ads that sold off Black properties following the incident.

The rioting, in fact, occurred at a time when Black people in Ocoee were getting on well, owning their own land, and thriving. Perry, a Black landowner and labor broker, was a well-respected Black man in the community. When he died, his estate was passed onto Bluford Sims who served the Confederate army.

Perry’s family and other Black families were never compensated for their properties. On June 21, 2019, however, a historical marker honoring Perry and others killed in the massacre was placed in Heritage Square outside the Orange County Regional History Center.

That became the first physical memorial to acknowledge his killing.

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