On Election Day, November 2, 1920, in Ocoee, Florida, Mose Norman, a Black man, was denied the right to vote after being accused of not paying a poll tax. On the day before the election, the Ku Klux Klan marched with robes and crosses through the streets of Ocoee terrorizing the Black community trying to intimidate them not to vote. In response to Mr. Norman’s attempt to vote, a mob of armed white people attached the local Black community. Suspecting that Mr. Norman was taking refuge with another Black man named July Perry, the armed mob attached Mr. Perry’s home.
Jules “July” Perry was seized, taken to Orlando and lynched near the courthouse on November 3rd. Over the course of a few days, the mob burned 25 Black homes, two Black churches, and a Black lodge in Ocoee. Somewhere from six to over 30 Black people were killed in the violence. Survivors fled as almost the entire Black community was forced out. For decades the Ocoee Massacre continued to shape the political and social landscape of the community and contributed to a history of racial terror that must be acknowledged.
Did you know that the act of registering to vote could be dangerous? Did you know that that Orange County once had sundown towns which warned African-Americans not to be on the streets after sundown or face violence against their persons? Did you know that Orange County has a dark history of punishing those who violated its Jim Crow laws, lynching those who dared to get out of their assigned places in a tightly segregated society? Did you know that an entire community of African-Americans were once burned out of their homes, their survivors forced to flee for their lives?
The events of the 1920 election and the ensuing destruction of the African-American community in Ocoee, Florida, raise troubling questions about what it means to be an American, about the fragility of the ideals of democracy and the places where those ideals and actual practice are at odds with one another. This event seeks to bring those troubling questions to consciousness, to dig through the debris of history to discover a very troubling but very human story that happened in our own back yard.
The right to vote, protected by our Constitution, has never been guaranteed to those who seek to exercise it, particularly those in socially disempowered groups. From the beginning, the American experiment in democracy has proven more noble in ideal than practice. Our 227-year history as a democratic republic has been marked by the ideal of democracy, decision making by the people, being chiseled out of the practice of discrimination with one layer of restrictions after another being lifted to expand the voting populace to closer and closer approximations of all the American people.
It was not until 1920 with the lifting of restrictions on women’s voting that a democracy based in a majority vote even became possible since the majority of the population who are women had been barred from participation. Even today Florida is one of but two states which do not allow felony offenders who have served their time to vote.
Changing demographics in a population often produces tensions which sometimes result in violence. The beneficiaries of any given status quo will resist any change which threatens their unquestioned exercise of privilege. 1920s’ Florida was changing rapidly with a land boom that brought thousands of newcomers to what was previously a sleepy Southern state. African-American soldiers returning from World War I were often unwilling to go from an armed forces which had valued their combat skills on equal par with their white counterparts to silently return to a Jim Crow South which saw them as second-class citizens. It is hardly surprising that in such a matrix violence would erupt.
We again live in a time of major demographic change, of soldiers returning home with questions about the status quo they are encountering in light of the ideals for which they have just fought. We live in a time of new challenges to the right to vote and dangerous challenges to minority communities. This is an important story for Orange County and for all Americans. It is a story that needs to be told. It is our story, a history we need to remember, our shadow we need to reclaim. It is a story worthy of being told in our history museum.