|Part of Racism in the United States|
|Date||November 2–3, 1920|
|Deaths||~56 blacks, 2 whites|
No. of participants
The Ocoee massacre was a violent race riot that broke out on November 2, 1920, the day of the quadrennial U.S. presidential election, in Ocoee, Florida, United States, a settlement (and now a city) in Orange County near Orlando. African-American-owned buildings and residences in northern Ocoee were burned to the ground, and as many as 50 or 60 African Americans may have been killed throughout the conflict. The African-Americans residing in Ocoee who were not direct victims of the race riot were later driven out by threats or force. Ocoee would then become an all-white town and remain as such "until sixty-one years later in 1981". The riot is still considered the "single bloodiest day in modern American political history".
The race riot was started as a white mob's response to the persistence of Mose Norman, an African American, to vote on election day. Mose Norman was ordered and driven away when he first attempted to go to the polls. When he came back to the polls later he was driven away again by whites, who would later form a mob to search for him. The white mob then surrounded the home of Julius "July" Perry, a prosperous local African-American farmer and contractor, where it was believed Norman was taking refuge. After Perry drove away the white mob with gunshots, the mob called for reinforcements from Orlando and Orange County, who then laid waste to the African-American community in Ocoee and eventually killed Perry. Norman would escape, never to be found. Other African Americans would flee into the orange groves, swamps and neighboring towns, leaving behind their homes and possessions.
Events preceding election day
Orange County, as well as the rest of Florida, was originally “politically dominated by Southern white Democrats.” However, in the weeks leading up to the presidential election of 1920, African-Americans throughout the South were registering to vote in record numbers. The mass registration coincided with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century, providing a tense racial and political climate. Judge John Moses Cheney, a Republican running for the Florida Senate, started a voter registration campaign to register African Americans to vote in Florida. Mose Norman and July Perry, both “prosperous African-American landowners in Ocoee,” led the local voter registration efforts in Orange County, even paying the poll tax for those who could not afford it. In an effort to preserve their white one-party rule, the Ku Klux Klan “marched in full regalia through the streets of Jacksonville, Daytona and Orlando,” and sent threats to Judge Cheney prior to the election. Three weeks before election day, the Ku Klux Klan warned the African-American community that “not a single Negro would be permitted to vote.”
African-Americans were met with resistance from the white community when they attempted to vote on election day. A system of voter fraud was used in Ocoee, which involved having poll workers challenge whether African-American voters were really registered. The voters would then have to prove they were registered by appearing before the notary public, R. C. Biegelow, who was regularly sent on fishing trips so that he was impossible to find. However, there were still African-Americans, including Mose Norman, who persisted but were then "pushed and shoved away".
Mose Norman, who would not be deterred, contacted Judge John Cheney, who told Norman that interference with voting is illegal, and instructed him to take down the names of all of the African-Americans who were denied their constitutional rights, as well as the names of the whites who were violating them. Norman later returned to polling place in Ocoee with a shotgun. Whether the shotgun was taken from Norman or stolen from his car is not entirely clear, but the whites at the polls drove off Norman using his own shotgun regardless.
The white community began to form a mob and paraded up and down the streets, growing “more disorderly and unmanageable.” The rest of the African-Americans gave up on trying to vote and left the polling place. Later during the evening, Colonel Sam Salisbury, a white leader of the town who was a native-New Yorker as well as former chief of police of Orlando, was called upon to lead a lynch mob to “find and punish Mose Norman.” He would later proudly confess to the following events that took place.
The invasion of Perry's home
The white mob was marching to the home of Mose Norman when someone informed them that Norman was seen visiting the home of July Perry. The mob, which numbered about one-hundred men, arrived at Perry's house, demanding that Perry and Norman surrender themselves. They received no answer and attempted to break down the front door. Perry, who had been warned about the mob in advance, fired gunshots from inside the home in self-defense. Exactly how many people were defending the house is uncertain; the whites estimated that there were several armed African-Americans while Zora Neale Hurston writes that Perry defended his home alone. Sam Salisbury knocked the back door open and got shot in the arm, becoming the first white casualty. Two other whites, former soldiers Elmer McDaniels and Leo Borgard, were killed when they also attempted to enter the back door. Their bodies would be found in the backyard hours later.
The white mob then withdrew to find reinforcements by contacting whites in Orlando, Apopka and Orange County, either calling them by phone or sending for them by car. During the two- to three-hour lull while the whites were retrieving reinforcements, July Perry, injured in the battle, attempted to flee with the help of his wife into a cane patch. He was later found by the white mob at dawn and arrested. After Perry's wounds were treated at a hospital, he was being transferred to a jail when a white mob took him from the vehicle that was transporting him and lynched him, his body found “swinging to a telephone post beside the highway.” Norman was never found.
Ocoee is razed
After the white mob obtained their reinforcements, the conflict spread to the rest of the African-American Ocoee community. The “white paramilitary forces surrounded the northern Ocoee black community and laid siege to it.” Fire was set to whole rows of African-American houses; those who were inside were forced to flee and get shot by the white mob. At least 20 buildings were burned in total, including every African-American church, schoolhouse and lodge room in the vicinity. African-American residents fought back in an evening-long gunfight lasting until as late as 4:45 A.M., their firearms later found in the ruins after the massacre ended. Eventually, the residents were driven into the nearby orange groves and swamps, forced to retreat until they were completely driven out of town.
The siege of Ocoee claimed numerous African-American victims. Langmaid, an African-American carpenter was beaten and castrated. One mother, named Maggie Genlack, died with her pregnant daughter while hiding in her home, their bodies found partially burned under their home. Roosevelt Barton, an African-American hiding in July Perry's barn, was shot after the mob set fire to the barn and forced him to flee. Hattie Smith was visiting her pregnant sister-in-law in Ocoee when her sister-in-law's home was set on fire. Smith fled, but her sister-in-law's family was killed while they hid and waited for help that would never come.
After the massacre
The African-American residents of southern Ocoee, while not direct victims of the massacre, were later threatened away using the Ocoee Massacre as a pretext. J. H. Hamiter, an African-American woman residing in southern Ocoee suspected that the massacre was planned so that whites could seize prosperous African-American homes for nothing. According to Hamiter, people to the south were coerced with the threat of being shot and burned if they did not “sell out and leave.” About 500 African-Americans in total were driven out of Ocoee, making Ocoee a practically all-white town. White citizens would later have to harvest the citrus crop in Ocoee themselves due to the lack of African-American labor.
July Perry's body was found “riddled with bullets” and swinging on a telephone post by the highway. His body was left near a sign reading, “This is what we do to niggers that vote.” A local photographer was selling photos of Perry for 25 cents each; several stores placed the photo on exhibition by their windows. The men who killed Perry were not arrested. Perry's wife, Estelle Perry, and their daughter were wounded during the battle at Perry's home, but survived. The authorities sent them to Tampa for treatment and “to avoid further disturbance.”
Walter White arrived in Orange County a few days after the event, undercover as a white northerner interested in buying orange grove property in Orange County. He found that the whites there were “still giddy with victory.” While talking to a local real estate agent and a taxi cab driver, White learned that about 56 African-Americans were killed in the massacre. The exact number could never be determined because some of the victims had been burned to death. He also learned that the massacre may have been precipitated by the white community's jealousy of the prosperous African-American landowners, including Mose Norman and July Perry.
- Go Ahead On, Ocoee – A Narrative Documentary Film by Bianca White & Sandra Krasa
- Ortiz, Paul (May 14, 2012). Ocoee, Florida: Remembering the single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history, The Institute for Southern Studies. Retrieved on April 26, 2013.
- Ortiz 2006, p. 215.
- Ortiz 2006, p. 214.
- Ortiz 2006, p. 220.
- Hurston, The Ocoee Riot, p. 1.
- New York Times (November 4, 1920). KILL TWO WHITES AND SIX NEGROES IN FLORIDA RIOT.
- Ortiz 2006, p. 221.
- Hurston, The Ocoee Riot, p. 2.
- Hurston, The Ocoee Riot, p. 3.
- Ortiz 2006, p. 222.
- Ortiz 2006, pp. 221–222.
- Ortiz 2006, p. 223.
- New York Times (November 5, 1920). NEGROES FLEE RIOT REGION.
- The Chicago Defender (November 6, 1920). LYNCHED MAN WHO WANTED TO VOTE.
- Hurston, Zora N. The Ocoee Riot, Box 2, folder, "Atrocities Perpetrated Upon June 1938" (WPA Papers), Florida Negro Papers
- Ortiz, Paul (2006). Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida From Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-25003-1