Sunday, December 8, 2019

1920 Ocoee and Beyond

An event was held at Valencia West building 8, Special Events Center (1800 South Kirkman Road, Orlando, Fl) in honor of the people who lost their lives in the Ocoee Massacre. On November 2, 1920 the day of the United States Presidential Election, a white mob attacked African-American residents in Ocoee, Florida. As many as 35 African Americans may have been killed during the riot, and most African-American-owned buildings and residences in Ocoee were burned to the ground, while others were later killed or driven out on threat of more violence. West Orange was incorporated in 1922, and Ocoee essentially became an all-white town. The riot has been described as the "single bloodiest day in modern American political history".

Perhaps the most horrific thing about this event is that we concretely know so little. We do not actually know who started what, how many African-Americans were killed, who ran to where, and whose property was stolen versus later sold, and whether or not for a fair price. There are many many versions of the narrative surrounding the Ocoee Massacre/Riot and little verifiable source documentation to back it up. Generally, the story goes as follows.

Mose Norman, a prosperous African-American land owner, tried to vote but was turned away on Election Day for not having paid his poll tax. In anger and frustration, Norman returned to the to the polling place. allegedly with a gun and tyring to get the names of the people who were illegally trying to keep him from voting. He was sent packing again. Norman took refuge in  the home of Julius "July" Perry, another prominent African American land owner.  

Colonel Sam Salisbury, a prominent white native New Yorker and a former chief of police of Orlando, led a group of white officers and other men to find and presumably punish Mose Norman. He later proudly lauded his part in the massacre that followed. Sam knocked on the door of July Perry and July came out. When July was grabbed, a shot rang out injuring one of the white officers.  Suddenly bullets were flying. It is unknown how many people were inside the house, how many were armed, and who actually was shooting, but in all, we do know that several white men were injured, 2 white men were killed, and only have any sort of proof that July Perry was seriously wounded along with his daughter Coretha. She escaped with her mother and children out the back door into a cane field.

The whites laid waste to the African-American community in West Orange. Fires burned a reporeted 18 or more black homes, two churches, and a lodge.  July Perry was reportedly taken to the Orange General Hospital (now Orlando Health), then to be taken to the jail. It is unclear whether he was taken by a mob en route to the jail or whether he was pulled from his cell, the jailor overwhelmed by the mob. Accounts vary from his being drug behind a car, his body being riddled with bullets, and being hung from either a pole or a tree. The location of said hanging is also very unclear and ranges from Church Street to up near the Country Club.

Norman escaped and relocated to New York City, eventually selling all of his land in Ocoee. Hundreds of other African Americans fled the town, leaving behind their homes and possessions.

Descendants of July Perry were in the audience of this Ocoee and Beyond event. Two of them are in my sketch seated at the table in front of me. They got up to talk a bit about their family's experiences through the years. Being two or three generations removed, they didn't have any direct commentary about July Perry. Their families fled Ocoee, moving to other states and the family continues to thrive. The evening was filled out with music and dance. Pam Schwartz of the Orange County Regional History Center was there because the museum plans to mount an exhibition about the Ocoee Massacre around the time of the 2020 elections. In front of the History Center, a historic marker was put up to remind modern residents about the Ocoee Election Day Massacre.

This event was not about placing blame or  anger at the past, but to find ways to heal and grow together as a community moving forward. It was a look at Central Florida's past so that we do not repeat it.

The 1920 census listed the following African American land-owing families, though there were more than 250 African Americans living in Ocoee at the time.
Anderson, Garfield and Janey Bell; two children; eldest son Sidney
Battsey, Randolph and Annie; daughters Alice and Bessie; owned farm
Blackshear, Martin and Candyce; four children, oldest son Morgan
Blue, Sanborri and Lilly
Dennys, Thomas and Lavinia
Dighs, Edward and Willamina
Edwards, John and Genie; oldest son Usteen
Frank (or Franks), Daniel and Carrie; four children, oldest son Allen
Green, Sally; six children, oldest son, Jeremiah; owned farm
Hampton, Jackson and Anna; owned farm
Hightower, Valentine and Janie; three children; owned farm
Johnson, Stephen and Julia; three grandsons, oldest James
Langmede, James and Eva; son Starland
Lynch, Richard and Fanny
McRae, William and Doda
Penzer, Kerry and Elisa; three children, oldest son Edson
Moore, Rocky and Daisy; five children, oldest son William
Nelson, Stephen and Julia; two children, son Edward
Perry, Julius P. and Stella; five children, oldest son Charles; home listed as "contested"
Surrency, Jessie and Grace; four children, oldest son Damott
Slater, Victoria; son Mason
Warron, Wade and Rhina; five children, oldest son Porter

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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