About This Episode
The Ocoee massacre was a white mob attack on African-American residents in northern Ocoee, Florida, which occurred on November 2, 1920, the day of the U.S. presidential election. The town is in Orange County near Orlando. As many as 60 or 70 African Americans may have been killed during the riot, and most African-American-owned buildings and residences in northern Ocoee were burned to the ground. Other African Americans living in southern Ocoee were later killed or driven out on threat of more violence. Ocoee essentially became an all-white town. The riot has been described as the “single bloodiest day in modern American political history”.
The attack started after efforts to suppress black voting. In Ocoee and across the state, various black organizations had been conducting voter registration drives for a year. Blacks had essentially been disfranchised in Florida since the turn of the 19th century. Mose Norman, a prosperous African-American farmer, tried to vote but was turned away twice on Election Day. Norman was among those working on the voter drive. A white mob surrounded the home of Julius “July” Perry, where Norman was thought to have taken refuge. After Perry drove away the white mob with gunshots, killing two men and wounding one who tried to break into his house, the mob called for reinforcements from Orlando and Orange County. The whites laid waste to the African-American community in northern Ocoee and eventually killed Perry. They took his body to Orlando and hanged it from a light-post to intimidate other blacks. Norman escaped. Hundreds of other African Americans fled the town, leaving behind their homes and possessions.
If you would like to learn more about the fascinating history of Orlando, visit the Orange County Regional History Center in downtown Orlando.
Location: Orange County Regional History Center, 65 E Central Blvd, Orlando, FL 32801
Phone: (407) 836-8500
The events of the early part of the 20th century would, in time, help shape and define the character of Orlando. The city was growing, as well as the rest of Orange County. Some days the city’s future never seemed brighter, and some were the darkest in the city’s history. We will continue to discover the History of Orlando Florida, coming up next.
In the years immediately following the dawn of the 20th century, Orlando began earnestly promoting itself as the ‘city beautiful’ attracting new residents. Early city boosters seemed to play fast and loose with the realities of living and playing in Central Florida. It might surprise one to know that according to one promotional campaign, Orlando had the best drinking water on earth and was, despite being in a sub-tropical climate, surprisingly free of insects.
But no matter the veracity of the claims, or the lack thereof, the city grew anyway. Orlando came to have quite a few colorful residents. Some of these residents which eventually found their way to Orlando in the early 1900s would become legendary – even becoming symbols of the city – like Orlando’s famous swans, including one infamous swan, named Billy.
The story of Orlando’s swans began when the Lake Lucerne Improvement Association was formed by residents around the lake to maintain the beauty of the shore. Mr. George Abbot suggested that two pairs of swans be purchased for the lake. The association agreed and the two pairs were acquired. The trouble was an alligator or two would find their way into the lake and harm the adult and cygnet hatchings. An alligator killed one of the adults and another was injured leaving one pair remaining.
Charles Lord, a resident and Englishman who had arrived in Orlando in 1885, remembered the swans he had seen in his youth on the Thames river, and on a trip back to England in 1910, arranged to have two pair of swans, one white pair and one black pair, shipped via American Express to Orlando at a cost of 95 dollars.
It was not long before the black pair of swans had to be removed from Lake Lucerne and placed in Lake Eola. It seems one of the white swans, named Billy, had an attitude. He would harass the black swans, terrorize children on their way to school and attack car tires.
The white swans, Billy and Sallie, spawned many young cygnets. Every day, Billy would take his turn sitting on their nest, keeping the eggs warm so that Sallie could take a cruise around the lake to feed and to stretch her legs. One day, Sallie grew tired of waiting on Billy and left the nest early. Her neglect of their home enraged Billy so that he grabbed her by the neck and drowned her. Thus, he became known as Billy Bluebeard, who in French folklore had a habit of murdering his wives.
Billy eventually was exiled to another lake and, after he died, taken to a taxidermist to be immortalized. You can see Billy Bluebeard on display at the Orange County Regional History Center in downtown Orlando to this day. Clearly, Orlando is a town that takes its swans seriously.
Although times were good in Orange County. Things were not always as they seemed on the surface. Attitudes and prejudices long harbored since before the days of Reconstruction were left unresolved. The decade of the 20s began with one of the darkest and most violent acts of racial brutality in America, just outside Orlando.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Democratic-dominated state legislatures primarily in Southern states enacted state and local laws that enforced racial segregation known as Jim Crow. As a body of law, Jim Crow institutionalized economic, educational, and social disadvantages for African Americans and other people of color living in the South.
Ten of the eleven former Confederate states, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements that, in effect, shut them out of the ability to exercise their right to vote. The implementation of Jim Crow, tragically, did not escape Orange County.
Coinciding with this era, was a revival of the white supremacist group: the Ku Klux Klan. Originally formed during the Reconstruction period after the civil war, the Klan saw a resurgence in the South after 1915 with white Democrats seeking to retain power and white superiority. One method to achieve this was by limiting Republican politicians at the state and federal level. These Republican candidates were actively registering black voters who had supported the ideas of Reconstruction. The political climate in the South in the early 20th Century was dominated by white Democrats. Blacks, if involved in politics at all, were almost exclusively Republican. Jim Crow laws favored by the Democrats; however, ensured that the black vote was suppressed.
John Moses Cheney was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1920. Cheney, a Florida attorney, represented African American clients during the segregation era and supported voter registration drives during his U.S. Senate campaign in the era of white supremacy, supported by the Democratic Party in Florida, and across the south. As a Republican, and as someone who actively encouraged African Americans to vote, he was on the watch list for members of the Florida Ku Klux Klan.
On September 20th 1920, Cheney and City of Orlando lawyer W.R. O’Neal – also a Republican, received a chilling letter from the Grand Master of the Florida Ku Klux Klan which read in part, “While stopping in your beautiful little city this week, I was informed that you are in the habit of going out among the negroes of Orlando and delivering lectures, explaining to them just how to become citizens, and how to assert their rights.”
The letter ended with the veiled threat, “We shall always enjoy WHITE SUPREMACY in this country and he who interferes must face the consequences.” The letter was also copied to the local chapter of the Klan with the instruction, “Watch these two.”
A powder keg had been lit, and only a few weeks later in November on election day in 1920, it exploded in an unincorporated town just west of Orlando, named Ocoee, which became the site of the single bloodiest day in modern American political history.
The village of Ocoee was founded in the 1850s along the western banks of the pristine Starke Lake, as a camp for workers laboring in the citrus farms around Lake Apopka. By 1920 there were just over 1,000 residents of the unincorporated town. Almost half of them were black. In fact, the African American population grew so large that two distinct black communities developed, sandwiching the white-dominated downtown district: the southern Black community — known locally as the Baptist Quarters — and northern Black community — commonly known as the Methodist Quarters.
Two residents of the northern Methodist community grew to become very respected and prosperous. Their names were Julius Perry – known as July Perry, and Mose Norman. Each were owners of multiple large tracts of farmland on the north side of town and had attained a wealth and status coveted even by local whites. Business was booming and the upcoming November election had everyone in the black community hopeful that they might see John Moses Cheney, elected to the U.S. senate. Perry and Norman also worked on voter registration drives signing people up; in some cases, paying the poll tax for those who could not afford it, and encouraged them to turn out on Election Day.
On November 1st, the day before the election, the KKK paraded through the streets of the two black communities in Ocoee late into the night. They threatened the black community with dire consequences if they tried to vote.
On election day, November 2nd, 1920 some blacks attempted to vote in Orange County. One-by-one they were turned away either by threats of violence or by poll workers who found their names “mysteriously” absent from the voter registration rolls. With little options, most returned to their homes without casting their ballots. Mose Norman would not be deterred. He went to seek the council of Judge Cheney in Orlando. Cheney instructed him to write down the names of any African Americans who were not permitted to vote and the names of the poll workers who had denied their Constitutional right.
Mose returned to Ocoee along with a handful of black citizens again seeking to vote. An altercation ensued whereby Mose was overpowered and beaten by the butt of a gun. Norman fled and afterward a group of white men, mostly Klansmen, decided to make an example of him for any other blacks who might want to exercise their right to vote.
Mose sought out his friend, July Perry at his home and showed Perry the note he had from Cheney about their legal rights and recounted what had happened to him. Afterward he left Perry and his small family fearing more serious reprisals were certain if he stayed. Perry also knew that things could escalate and began preparing for the worst.
Later that afternoon a mob headed toward the home of Mose Norman but were tipped off that he might be hiding out at the home of his friend July Perry. The crowd surrounded Perry’s home and the group’s leader, Sam Salisbury, called on Perry to come out. After a terse conversation, Salisbury grabbed Perry and put him in a headlock. Perry’s daughter responded from the door by attempting to aid her father with a rifle. Salisbury brushed the weapon aside, but the gun fired, shooting him in the arm. Salisbury retreated and a hail of gunfire erupted in both directions. During the confrontation two from the mob were killed as the small family inside the house valiantly defended their home.
The mob left, convinced there was a large group inside, but only to recruit reinforcements from Klan members in surrounding cities. July had been seriously wounded during the incident and fled, with the help of his wife, into a nearby sugar cane patch. Perry’s daughter remained in the house to tend her injuries, while his two young sons hid in the barn.
Two or three hours passed. And the tension from the unknown was building. It must have felt like being inside the eye of a hurricane. When the fierce storm winds finally hit, no one could have predicted the immense devastation that would occur.
Late at night, around 50 cars full of Klan members flooded into Ocoee. A manhunt ensued and Perry was located and arrested. Perry was taken to the hospital for treatment of a gunshot wound to his arm then sent to jail in Orlando.
Just before dawn, a lynch mob descended upon the jail and demanded the keys to Perry’s cell. July Perry was severely beaten and attached to the back of a car and dragged through the streets. Arriving near Judge Cheney’s home, the evil crowd strung him up on a light pole and used him as target practice. The gruesome scene was left as a warning to Cheney and other blacks who tried to vote.
So extreme and unfulfilled was the cruel mob’s hatred that their attention turned to the northern Methodist quarters of Perry and Norman’s home. Without a shred of mercy, the livid crowd went from one house to another firing their guns and torching their homes. The violence lasted all day and into the early morning hours of November 4th. Panic stricken, some families tried to fight back, others were able to escape the relentless onslaught. As the homes were set ablaze, entire families including pregnant women and children had to decide whether they would rather burn to death or be shot trying to escape. There was no other alternative. One family of eight tried to run out the back of their burning home, only to be ensnared in chicken wire and burned alive. One man was beaten senseless and castrated.
When the rampage was finally over all the Methodist Quarter’s 25 homes, the lodge, school, and the church were set ablaze leaving nothing left for survivors to return to. The residents of the southern Baptist Quarters were given an ultimatum: forfeit your property and leave or suffer the same fate. The land was sold to the hateful attackers for pennies on the dollar.
The Klan cordoned off the area and for the next week kept the now homeless black community from re-entering. The despondent residents lost everything. Mose Norman who had left just prior to the attack found his way to New York, never to return. He died there in 1949.
Within weeks of the incident, the nearly 500 black residents of Ocoee were reduced to only one. And by the 1930 census there were none. Ocoee became an all-white town and it would be over 60 years before a new black resident would call Ocoee home. For 18 years following the 1920 Ocoee massacre, not a single black vote was cast in all of Orange County.
It would take decades before the incident in Ocoee would be openly acknowledged. It was a subject no one wanted to recount. In 1998 a group dedicated to shedding light on the event, discovered July Perry’s death certificate in state records and located his unmarked grave in Orlando’s Greenwood Cemetery. In 2002 on the 82nd anniversary of the Ocoee Massacre, a stone memorial was finally placed on the grave by the West Orange Reconciliation Task Force. A descendant of Perry’s daughter spoke at the ceremony. He said, “The sleeping giant from yesterday of Ocoee has awakened. He has declared that there are giant footsteps for democracy today, and they’re being imprinted upon the hearts and minds and the souls of people everywhere. To me, this truly marks the beginning of the healing process.”
It is fitting that July Perry is buried at Greenwood Cemetery. Most all of the significant men and women in Orlando’s history, who helped to shape the city, are laid to rest there. It is a great honor for all citizens of Orlando that July Perry is counted among them.