The Ocoee Massacre

Ocoee, history

The Ocoee massacre, considered the “single bloodiest day in modern American political history,” was a violent race riot that broke out on November 2, 1920. African-American-owned buildings and residences in northern Ocoee, a city in Orange County, Florida, were burned to the ground. The African-Americans residing in Ocoee who were not direct victims of the race riot were later driven out by threats or force. A total of 330 acres plus 48 city lots owned by 18 Black families living in Ocoee, Florida, were lost. In 2001, the land lost by the 18 Ocoee families, not including buildings now on it, is assessed by tax officials at more than $4.2 million, according to the AP report. Ocoee would then become an all-whyte town and remain as such “until sixty-one years later in 1981.”

Ocoee was founded in the 1850s as a camp for laborers working the farms around southern shores of Lake Apopka. By 1920 there were just over 1,000 residents; and almost half of them were African Americans. Two distinct Black communities developed in Ocoee. The southern Black community — known locally as the Baptist Quarters — which sprung up around the Friendship Baptist Church, founded in 1896. The northern Black community, commonly known as the Methodist Quarters. Its namesake Ocoee African Methodist Episcopal Church held its first services in 1890.

July Perry was a well-respected godfather of the northern Black community, who served as a deacon in the church and the local labor leader. It was said that anyone seeking to employ Black laborers needed to speak with him first. Perry who encouraged young Blacks to be educated and stand up for themselves as first-class citizens, was an admired civil rights leader.

Mose Norman was a well-known and prosperous man. Norman and wife Elisa owned a 100-acre family orange grove. It was said that he was once offered $10,000 for his groves — a huge sum for the time — but refused to take it.

Orange County, as well as the rest of Florida, was originally “politically dominated by Southern whyte 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. Judge John Moses Cheney, a Republican running for the Florida Senate, started a voter registration campaign to register African Americans to vote in Florida. July Perry and Mose Norman, led the local voter registration efforts in Orange County, even paying the poll tax for those who could not afford it.

However, the mass registration coincided with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century, providing a tense racial and political climate. Before the election, the Klan sent threatening letters to Cheney and other Republican leaders, ordering them to stop the voter registration campaign or face the consequences. The KKK held rallies in the streets of cities like Orlando, Daytona, Miami, and Jacksonville, in attempts to intimidate any Blacks from voting.

On November 1st, the day before the election, with robes and crosses, the Klan paraded through the streets of the two Black communities in Ocoee late into the night. With megaphones they warned that “not a single [African American] will be permitted to vote” and if any of them dared to do so there would be dire consequences.

On election day, African-Americans were met with resistance from the whyte community when they attempted to vote. Black voters were turned away either by threats of violence or by poll workers who found their names “mysteriously” absent from the voter registration rolls.

Mose Norman, who would not be deterred. After being prevented from voting, Norman rode to Orlando to seek the council of Judge Cheney, who told him 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 whytes who were violating them.

Norman returned to Ocoee with these instructions, along with a handful of Black citizens seeking to vote. After again being forcibly turned away, he demanded the poll workers names and exclaimed: “We will vote, by God!” At the time Norman had a loaded shotgun (either on his person or in his car) and an altercation ensued. Overpowered and beaten by the butt of his own gun, he was driven away by whytes.

The whyte community then 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, Sam Salisbury, a whyte leader of the town who was a native-New Yorker as well as former chief of police of Orlando, is called upon to lead a lynch mob to “find and punish Mose Norman.”

The whyte 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. The Perry family so valiantly defended their home that some were convinced there was a large group inside. The whytes estimated that there were several armed African-Americans while Zora Neale Hurston writes that Perry defended his home alone. Sam Salisbury got shot in the arm, becoming the first whyte casualty. Two of Salisbury’s men, were killed when they tried to storm the house by kicking in the backdoor. Their bodies would be found in the backyard hours later.

Defeated, the mob retreated temporarily to get reinforcements and additional manpower from Klan members in surrounding cities. The Perry family used the two or three hour respite to escape the house. Perry had been seriously wounded during the incident and fled, with the help of his wife, into a nearby sugar cane patch. His daughter, Coretha remained in the house to tend her injuries alone, while his two young sons hid in the barn.

Around 50 cars full of Klan members flooded into Ocoee from towns such as Winter Garden, Orlando, and Sanford. Finding only 22-year-old Coretha in the house, a manhunt ensued and Perry was later found by the whyte mob at dawn and arrested. After being taken to Orlando General Hospital on Kuhl Avenue for treatment of the gunshot wound to his arm, Perry was released into sheriff custody and taken to the jail in Orlando that night, probably near the old courthouse at Central and Magnolia.

A lynch mob descended upon the jail to which Sheriff Frank Gordon handed over the keys to Perry’s cell. They wasted no time in seizing and beating Perry. They dragged him through the streets behind a car before arriving at the entrance to Orlando Country Club near Lake Concord, where Judge Cheney’s home stood.

The mob strung up the by now near-dead Perry to a telephone pole along the highway. His hanging body was riddled with bullets. This gruesome scene was left there as a warning both to Cheney and African Americans, with a chilling note saying “This is what we do to niggers who try to vote.”

Some time later Perry was cut down by Black undertaker Edward Stone — against the wishes of the KKK, who threatened Stone afterwards — and brought to Greenwood Cemetery, south of Orlando, where his body was buried in the Black section of the graveyard. He remained in an unmarked grave until November 2002 when a movement led to locating his gravesite and adding a headstone to memorialize him.

A local photographer took photos of Perry and sold them 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, and their daughter survived the massacre, and the authorities sent them to Tampa for treatment and “to avoid further disturbance.”

After the white mob lynched Perry, their vengeful lust spread to the rest of the African-American Ocoee community. The mob 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 whyte 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.

The African-American residents of southern Ocoee, the Baptist Quarters, while not direct victims of the massacre, were later threatened away. J. H. Hamiter, an African-American woman residing in southern Ocoee suspected that the massacre was planned so that whytes 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-whyte town. Whyte citizens would later have to harvest the citrus crop in Ocoee themselves due to the lack of African-American labor.

Walter White, the African American civil rights activist who led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People arrived in Orange County a few days after the event. White used his light complexion (he had blonde hair and blue eyes), to work undercover as a whyte northerner interested in buying orange grove property in Orange County. He found that the whytes 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 whyte community’s jealousy of the prosperous African-American landowners, including Mose Norman and July Perry.

Mose Norman escaped the massacre. He never returned to Florida. After visiting with friends in Apopka and Stuckey on November 3–4, 1920, he left town for New York City (presumably with his wife) where he lived out the rest of his life until his death in 1949.

For a nearly a week after the incident, KKK troops set up an embargo around the town. No one was permitted to enter or leave without their permission. Specifically they sought to keep the now homeless African Americans from entering Orlando to the east and Winter Garden to the west.

The third of Ocoee’s black population who owned their own land were never able to return to their properties. Those who were offered any compensation at all were forced to sell their land for pennies on the dollar.

Within weeks of the incident, only two African Americans remained in town. And by the 1930 census there were none. In fact, not a single African-American dared live in Ocoee for sixty years until 1981. The city didn’t hire its first black worker until 1986. And for 18 years following the 1920 massacre, not a single black vote was cast in all of Orange County.

Source: Meserette Kentake, Kentake Page

Source: Jason Byrne, Florida History

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24 thoughts on “The Ocoee Massacre

  1. William(Terry) Johnson

    We as a people should make more situations like this known to our younger generation to let them know what our ancestors have gone through for us and then maybe they would stop killing eachother.

    Reply
    • Arthur Robinson

      We are to busy looking towards the great continent of Africa to know the great history of our truest ancestry in the Americas. This is one of the reason the Black Racist has us looking towards Africa.

      Reply
    • Earl

      I doubt a since of history will stop the younger generation from doing what they are doing….. Just like with everything else in life, it’s about finance. They don’t have any money and to get it, they usually use violent methods.

      Reply
  2. Amy Gilcrest

    As a white person, this make me embarrassed & ashamed for how African Americans were treated, killed, brutalized. Here we are, almost 100 years later, with a particularly contentious political climate, and I’m worried it may happen again. Many white people think that there is no reason to teach black history other than slavery (as a general subject) and MLK, but there are many other stories to be told, such as this one. Stories like this are the black community’s Holocaust. We should be able to say in our country, “Never Again”.

    Reply
    • Marisol

      There were plenty of these occurrences. Here’s a list of some….Note that there were thousands of black lives lost at these riots

      Prior to the 1960s, rioting (or race riots), consisted of whites burning down and destroying black communities simply because they didn’t want them there. Mostly in major northern, western and Midwestern cities, where the population of black citizens grew tremendously due to the great migration. Blacks fled from Jim Crow south to seek refuge and to find jobs and homes. The competition was fierce, thousands and thousands of blacks flooded the cities resulting in “white flight”.
      White people were angry that blacks were taking over jobs and building their own communities. Even white soldiers that have been stationed away from home were furious when they came back to this “change”.
      This is how race riots started. Whites were not too happy about desegregation in their cities. With subliminal attempts to keep their city segregated, blacks were not allowed in the “white” part of town. Black homes and communities were destroyed and burned down by angry white mobs and countless deaths occured.
      Here are ONLY just a few examples of race riots that took place in our country:
      1921: May 30- June 1. Tulsa, OK. Black Wall Street Massacre
      1922. May 6, June 9 Kirven, Texas
      1923: January 1. Rosewood, FL Rosewood Massacre
      1930: October 12-15 Sainte Genevieve, MO
      1931: March Scottsboro, AL
      1935: March 19 Harlem, NY Harlem Riot of 1935
      1943: May Mobile, AL
      1943: June Los Angeles, CA Zoot Suit Riot
      1943: June 15-16 Beaumont, TX Beaumont Race Riot of 1943
      1943: June 20 Detroit, MI Detroit Race Riot
      1943:August1 Harlem,NY Harlem Riot of 1943
      1949: August-September Peekskill, NY
      1951: July 11-12 Cicero County, IL Cicero Race Riot
      1958: Maxton, NC Battle of Hayes Pond
      1959: February Pearl River County, MS
      1960: April Biloxi Beach, MS
      1962: October Oxford, MS Uni of Mississippi
      1963: September 30. Oxford, MS Ole Miss Riot
      1963: July 11Cambridge, MD Cambridge riot of 1963
      1963: May 13 Birmingham, AL Bombings
      1964: July Brooklyn, NY
      1964: July 18 Harlem, NY Harlem Riot of 1964
      1964: July 24-26 Rochester, NY Rochester riot
      1964: August Jersey City, NJ
      1964: August Paterson, NJ
      1964: August Elizabeth, NJ
      1964: August Chicago, IL
      1964: August 28 Philadelphia, PA Philadelphia 1964 race riot
      1965: March 7 Selma, AL Bloody Sunday
      1965: July Springfield, MA
      1965: August 11-17 Los Angeles, CA Watts Riot

      Reply
    • milli

      Your empathy is most appreciated. I don’t understand why one of ANY color, race or religion would think these acts were ever ok.

      Reply
  3. Samuel Brooks

    A most informative article regarding this tragedy. Mose Norman and July Perry are among a list of courageous African Americans throughout history who refused to be intimidated by vile racism even if it cost them their lives. Also. It appears that the word “whyte” in the article rather than “white” is a misprint.

    Reply
  4. Former Resident

    I lived in west Orange County from 1978 to 1997. I lived in Ocoee, Winter Garden and Oakland. After a few years in Orlando my ex husband and I moved to Ocoee. While Winter Garden and Oakland did not have the riots they did have segregation issues. Winter Garden Maxey Elem was primarily Afician American. To desegregate Ocoee Jr High they bussed kids from Winter Garden. At the end of the school year there was this uneasy feeling that the riots would happen again. Oakland had the old barrack housing on the west side. Many of the African American families lived there. All 3 communities as well as Windermere went to West Orange High School in the 80′s. Even in the mid 90′s when I moved back to Ocoee there were still very few African Americans families in the older neighborhoods. Pine Hills aka Crime Hill in West Orlando a primarily Africian American community has migrated into present day Ocoee. Even the mall that was built there a few years ago has many stores gone and it is not safe. Not long ago teenagers barged into a movie theater in droves causing chaos It is not the same area it once was. Ocoee was a working man’s community. Many of the neighborhoods are trac homes. They were inexpensive to buy. Every 3rd or 4th house was the same. Many of the residents were flag waving, God fearing and hardworking. Now it is drug and crime ridden. The old Methodist Church is now a mosque. Sadly the streets I rode my bike on and never felt fear are gone forever. I am amazed at the comments on here of people who only read this story and think any one that lived there must be a redneck card holding KKK member.

    Reply
    • Roger Webb

      Pay close attention to your surroundings and the actions of a certain political candidate.

      Don’t say it can’t happen again in the land of opportunity where slavery was and still may be legal. Too many people take for granted things without the second thought of the actuality of things being possible.

      Anything can happen once it’s happened before.

      Reply
  5. Harold Gainous

    Hate. . . Prejudice….. ,and the purveyors of it are even with us now in this 21st century . Bosses , Government officials , local and state , even neighbors and so called friends . do we REALLY know them ?

    Reply
  6. Leonard Gresham

    This is why the second amendment (our right to bear arms) should be more important to black people. I can’t think of any other people treated in this way but the indigenous people of this land, (“Indian”). This is the reason white America is armed and has “militias” they know history and they know it can repeat itself. We need a “Well organized militias” in place in every black community, not to attack whites or anyone, but to guard against this history ever repeating itself.
    I am not against “gun control”, the magic word is CONTROL, not everyone should be allowed to have any kind of weapon.

    Reply
    • Tim

      “Victims of oppression often adopt behaviours and philosophies of the opressor”
      - Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

      Do not sell your soul because the force you have witnessed against you in your life is attempting to dominate your very sense of morality. You will do worse than submit as a slave, you will become an oppressor! And your soul will be the cost.

      Reply
  7. debbie catalina

    To many such events remain hidden… Like the black prisoners who were left untreated for syphilis in prison for medical research… by the government of the United States! Not enough people know about that and many others beside.
    None the less, it’s always concerning to me when Wounded Knee is always left out of “the worst racist atrocities in United States history” Why don’t first American’s matter?

    Reply
  8. jack

    It makes me very sad to read stories like this one and think people could treat other people so horribly. It also amazes me why so many black people are Democrats, it seems to me most Democrats are the same as they were , with a few exceptions JFK to name one.

    Reply

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