A Forgotten Election Day Massacre in Florida That Still Haunts Today - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because the Ocoee massacre remains the worst incident of election violence in U.S. history.

By Sean Braswell

As was generally the case with lynching, the medium itself was the message. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also a sign. The note that the white mob attached to the dead body of Julius “July” Perry reportedly read:

“This is what we do to n****** who try to vote.”

Hours before, Perry had been a prosperous Black landowner, a labor leader, a church deacon and a respected member of his community living out the American Dream amid the orange tree groves and sugar cane fields of Central Florida. Then, a century ago on Nov. 2, 1920, Election Day, Perry’s prosperity and the thriving existence of the Black neighborhoods of his hometown of Ocoee came to an abrupt halt. 

Perry’s lynching was just the start: the white men responsible for it shot, injured and killed dozens of other Black residents, including children. They burned their houses and churches to the ground. Almost the entire Black population, up to 500 people, fled the town, abandoning their homes and possessions, never to return. The Ocoee massacre remains the worst incident of election violence in U.S. history, and the forgotten — and intentionally buried — story of how one small-town community’s exercise of its constitutional rights transformed into an episode of unthinkable racial cleansing still has the power to shock a century later.

*****

Ocoee, now a town of almost 50,000 people located approximately 10 miles west of Orlando, was founded in the 1850s. But today its Southern charms, and tranquil locale, alongside the pristine Starke Lake, conceal a horror that the area is still coming to terms with today.

Florida was once a sanctuary for African Americans. Way back in 1693, King Charles II of Spain freed the nation’s ex-slaves, and the St. Augustine area became a haven for runaway slaves from the British colonies. Eventually Spain relinquished Florida to the British, those colonies came under the United States and slavery returned to Florida — the federal government under Thomas Jefferson deploying its own soldiers to return many of the area’s Blacks to bondage.

The local justice of the peace had conveniently, and by design, gone fishing that day…

Following the Civil War, slavery was abolished, but segregation, white supremacy and voter suppression reigned. In addition to acts and threats of violence, Florida’s white leaders used poll taxes, grandfather clauses and voter “qualification tests” containing absurd questions like “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?” to render Black suffrage as meaningless as possible. 

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Residents of the town of Ocoee, Florida, before the 1920 massacre.

But in 1920, empowered and inspired by the 19th Amendment’s recognition of women’s right to vote, Black Floridians began to organize as never before — voter registration drives, marches, secret voter education workshops at churches and lodges. The grassroots democratic effort formed what Paul Oritz, historian and author of Emancipation Betrayed, calls “the first statewide civil rights movement in U.S. history.” But the powers that be did not care for it. “There is a statewide reactionary movement against the Black struggle to regain the right to vote,” says Ortiz. “And the Ku Klux Klan was one part of that movement.”

The KKK staged large marches in Jacksonville, Daytona and Orlando designed to intimidate voters. They even turned up in what was then a small citrus town of about 1,000 people, Ocoee, on the evening before the Nov. 2 election, shouting into megaphones that “not a single Negro will be permitted to vote.” And that was not hyperbole. On Election Day in Ocoee and elsewhere in Central Florida, armed white deputies stood guard as self-declared poll monitors. Poll workers routinely challenged Black voters, who could only contest those challenges before the local justice of the peace, who had — conveniently, and by design — gone fishing that day.

Orlando-Sentinel-Article

One of the Black citizens who was turned away from the polls that day was Mose Norman, a 59-year-old farmer and businessman who owned a 100-acre family orange grove and a six-cylinder Columbia convertible. Like his friend July Perry, he was a pillar of the Black community in Ocoee, and one of its most politically active leaders. With no means of redressing the voter suppression in Ocoee, Norman traveled to Orlando to seek the help of Judge John Cheney, a white Republican running for the U.S. Senate and a supporter of Black voting rights. Cheney asked Norman to return to the polls in Ocoee and start gathering information, including the names of the individuals who were preventing Blacks from voting. This was likely for the purpose of filing a complaint or a lawsuit, but it proved to be a very dangerous errand.

*****

Norman returned to Ocoee. There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened next, but it appears that armed men drove Norman from the polls and he fled to the nearby home of July Perry. Rumors then began to swirl among whites in Ocoee that Blacks with guns were assembling in Perry’s home, and a group of 20 or more heavily armed white men led by Sam Salisbury, a former Army colonel and former Orlando Chief of Police, were deputized by the Orange County Deputy Sheriff to investigate. 

Salisbury, with the mob behind him, knocked on July Perry’s front door and demanded his surrender. A scuffle ensued during which Perry’s daughter fired a shot that hit Salisbury in the arm. This set off a shootout at the house in which at least two white men were killed. The mob would later claim that “37 armed Negroes” participated in the shootout, but it is more likely that it was Perry, his wife, daughter, sons and a couple of hired hands that held off the large mob. Mose Norman had already fled Ocoee in his convertible and was never seen again.

We don’t like to use the term ethnic cleansing … but it happens here.”

Historian Paul Ortiz

The mob set Perry’s house and barn on fire and his family escaped into the woods. July Perry was captured in a sugar cane field near his house and shot several times. He was taken to the local jail as news of the shootout spread. Alerted by an electronic signboard in Orlando that was being used for the first time to broadcast election returns, hundreds more white vigilantes from across the county descended on Ocoee. Perry was taken from the jailhouse at 3:30 a.m. by a mob of around a hundred white men. They drove him to Orlando and lynched him from a big oak tree outside the entrance to the Orlando Country Club, a tree visible from the home of Judge John Cheney.

Julius “July” Perry

That evening and into the night, the white mob set fire to more than 20 Black homes, two churches and one fraternal lodge in Ocoee, and shot at those trying to flee the flames. Those who survived escaped into the surrounding swamp, and the following day, the Florida Times-Union reported that “many negroes have been seen walking along highways many miles from Ocoee.” Estimates vary wildly as to the death toll, but up to 60 Black residents of Ocoee lost their lives that night. “We don’t like to use the term ethnic cleansing unless we can use it in Eastern Europe,” says Ortiz. “We don’t like use a word pogrom unless we can use it in Africa or someplace else. But it happens here.”

The survivors of the massacre never returned, abandoning their homes and property. Local whites claimed the property, with newspapers in Orlando and Miami advertising its sale. The acres of orange groves and other property are worth millions of dollars today, but Ocoee’s former Black landowners were undercompensated, or more commonly, not compensated at all. Blacks did not return to live in Ocoee until the 1970s, and it is believed that not a single Black person voted anywhere in Orange County for 17 years after the episode. Survivor Coretha Caldwell, Perry’s daughter who escaped with family to Tampa, was asked years later if she had ever returned to Ocoee. ‘’No, God, I don’t ever want to see it,” she reportedly replied, “not even on a map.’’

*****

The Election Day massacre in Ocoee made international headlines the next day, alongside the victory of Warren G. Harding in the U.S. presidential race, and then fell out of the news. “It was buried. It was not talked about. It was certainly not in textbooks,” says Marvin Dunn, historian and author of A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes. “Like many other race riots and massacres in the South and in Florida, once the events left the front page of the newspapers, they were buried.”

A local grand jury was convened in Orange County, but unsurprisingly no one was ever charged in connection with the Ocoee massacre. The U.S. House of Representatives Census Committee heard testimony about events in Florida later that year, and the Department of Justice launched a brief investigation into the allegations of voter suppression but concluded that there was “no attempt to intimidate any Negroes in the casting of their ballots.”

KKK-Letter

The body of July Perry was buried in Orlando’s Greenwood Cemetery in a grave that lay unmarked until 2002. Just a few yards away, covered by a monument and surrounded by the graves of his descendants, lies the grave of Sam Salisbury. Perry’s grave stands alone. In recent years, though, July Perry’s name and story have started to crop up all over Florida. A July Perry historical marker was unveiled in 2019, and a stretch of nearby highway named after him. This past June, House Bill 1213, which mandates teaching about the Ocoee massacre in Florida schools, passed unanimously in the state legislature and was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

The story of Ocoee serves as a stark reminder of America’s troubled past, but also as a warning of its far from perfect present, especially in a state that is still battling voter suppression efforts today. Democracy must constantly be fought for, and sometimes against men with guns. And what makes what those like July Perry and Mose Norman did so audacious, says Ortiz, isn’t the actions they took in the face of danger and violence. “It’s the idea that there are things more powerful than guns. There are ideas, there are beliefs in equality. That’s what animat[ed] this movement in Ocoee and that’s what we have to honor today.”

Shocked by this story? Wait until you hear from families impacted by the tragedy in OZY’s new podcast, America’s Forgotten Election Day Massacre.

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