100 years ago Black Americans paid for their struggle to realize the promise of full citizenship.
Exactly 100 years ago the hopes and dreams of a community of people in a little Florida town were brutally massacred in a fiery act of malevolent carnage, leaving an ugly and indelible stain on Florida’s history.
On Election Day 1920, a number of Black residents who lived in the town of Ocoee, Florida, were energized to cast their ballots. They included a man named Moses Norman. Norman was one of the most prosperous Black men in the Orange County community.
Ocoee was a segregated town. About 1,000 or half of the residents were Black.
It is important to understand that voting was not a luxury Blacks in the South enjoyed freely at the time.
“…the KKK had marched about 500 strong through the streets of Orlando and other places, Daytona, Jacksonville, basically attempting to threaten and scare black people…or threaten them out of going and casting their vote, which probably did have an impact on some people,” said Pamela Schwartz, Chief Curator at the Orange County Regional History Center.
Two of the most successful African American families in town were the Perrys and the Normans.
When Norman attempted to vote in Ocoee he was turned away. So were a number of other Black residents.
Some accounts suggest that Norman went to the home of his friend, July Perry, to tell him what happened.
That evening, a mob of armed White men came to Perry’s home in search of Norman. By that time Norman was no where to be found.
Shooting soon broke out. Gunfire came from both sides. Perry was captured and ultimately lynched. The mob then turned its ire on Ocoee’s Black population. An unknown number of innocent African Americans were targeted and killed. Their homes and property were set on fire before burning to the ground.
Most of Ocoee’s Black residents fled and never to returned.
The Ocoee Massacre is an example of how elusive the promise of full citizenship in America has been for African Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation became law.
For decades, the vast majority of Black people struggled to assert their right to be both civically engaged and economically mobile.
Many understood that the path to upward mobility or rising above their station in life began with the right to vote.
However, Ocoee was not the only place in Florida where blood was spilled that Election Day.
Blacks in a number of Florida’s counties were terrorized and killed that day. In order to understand why November 2, 2020 became the bloodiest day in American political history, it’s important to understand the backdrop of that day.
In the months leading up to November 2, 1920 a massive Black get-out-the-vote effort was underway in Florida.
It began in Jacksonville on January 1, 1919 where African Americans began laying the groundwork for a voter registration drive aimed at combating white supremacy, segregation and one-party rule in Florida. At the time the Democrats were Florida’s majority party.
Aside from the right to vote without the threat of violence or death, they wanted representation, equal pay, better schools, and the full protection of the law, among other things.
The movement would involve some of Florida’s most prominent Black political leaders of the day such as Mary McCloud Bethune, James Weldon Johnson, and Walter White as well as Black rights organizations such as the NAACP.
Bethune is quoted as telling African Americans to “eat your bread without butter but pay your poll tax!”
Poll taxes applied to everyone regardless of race but disproportionately impacted poor and Black people. However, because of poll tax laws, White women could also be discriminated against when they went to vote. The 24th Amendment would eventually abolish the poll tax after Congress deemed it “an obstacle to the proper exercise of a citizens franchise.” Congress expected its removal to “provide a more direct approach to participation by more of the people in their government.” However, that wouldn’t happen for more than 40 years.
Meanwhile, fraternal organizations, unions and churches hosted voter education workshops.
Black women were very much involved and became even more energized after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote.
Unfortunately, as many Black women would soon realize, the victory of the 19th amendment was not necessarily a victory for them.
At the same time, African Americans who had fought in World War I had begun mustering the courage to demand more respect after having served their country in the years after they returned home.
However, the voter registration drive faced steep obstacles.
A recent report analyzing lynchings in the South between 1877–1950 found that Florida, Mississippi and Arkansas had the highest per capita rates of lynching by total population in the country.
Democrats, a number of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan, controlled most of the state and most local government. They used terror, corruption and Jim Crow laws to keep Black Floridians disenfranchised.
They used terror, corruption and Jim Crow laws to keep Black Floridians disenfranchised.
“Democrats are trying to systematically eradicate, Republicans from the State, but actually a small percentage of black voters could be pivotal in an election,” said Michigan State University English professor, Julian Chambliss. “And so you have White Republicans still trying to encourage Black people to participate…and this creates tensions around questions around representation and the Republican party itself,” Chambliss, a Florida native, said.
According to Chambliss, this ultimately caused a rift in the Republican party.
“And it’s increasingly riven by sort of strife between Republicans who want to embrace having black Republicans within the party and those that want to distance themselves from a platform that supports African American rights,” he said.
Dr. Ortiz — a historian, author and a University of Florida professor, writes about the issue in the Gainsville Sun. “The national Republican Party traded in its “Party of Lincoln” standard and acquiesced to black voter suppression in the south. African Americans asked to vote in Florida were being asked to risk their lives,” Ortiz wrote.
Dr. Ortiz — a historian, author and a University of Florida professor, writes about the issue in the Gainsville Sun. “The national Republican Party traded in its “Party of Lincoln” standard and acquiesced to black voter suppression in the South. African Americans asked to vote in Florida were being asked to risk their lives,” Ortiz wrote.
Eventually, the voter registration movement spread to more than half of Florida’s counties. Democrats became alarmed. They viewed the movement as a threat to white supremacy in the south and launched their own repressive tactics to thwart the movement.
That didn’t stop thousands of African Americans from attempting to vote on November 2nd. Many viewed this opportunity as their only path to full citizenship.
Nevertheless, hundreds of Black Floridians were turned away from the polls. Dr. Ortiz writes, “Whites killed African Americans in Gasden, Manateee and Liberty counties.”
Black U.S. citizens in those counties as well as Ocoee were killed simply for trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
The NAACP president presented evidence of voter suppression of Florida’s Black residents to Congress. Northern congressman, however, did nothing about it and white supremacy was upheld in Florida — effectively sanctioned by the federal government.
As we head to the polls this year, it is important to understand just how sacred the right to vote is, particularly for African Americans who were brutalized and killed, just for trying to exercise that right.
Many people have likely never heard of Ocoee. Like dozens of other mob-inspired acts of violence that led to the deaths of African Americans and the destruction of Black communities, the story of the Ocoee Massacre was suppressed for one reason or another. Stories of this nature are unpleasant and often make people feel uncomfortable. Most would rather hear uplifting, inspiring tales.
The Ocoee Massacre, however, has never been given it’s proper place in history. The death and destruction caused by the perpetrators of that Massacre and others violent acts across the state that on November 2, 1920, is rarely even acknowledged. Similarly, the Florida voter registration movement and its leaders have also been relegated as a mere footnote in our history, despite its widespread impact.
Perhaps this will change if we continue to tell the story of Ocoee and other uncomfortable, unfortunate parts of our nation’s history. Perhaps. Even if it takes 100 years or more.
Nia Clark is a TV Reporter as well as a producer and host of the Dreams of Black Wall Street podcast.
Sometimes, the unpleasant, uncomfortable stories can be just as inspiring, if not motivating.