New Florida law to teach, recognize 1920 Ocoee massacre that destroyed Black community

©Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — A new Florida law will bring more public awareness to the victims of the Ocoee massacre of 1920, when a white mob on Election Day lynched a Black man dedicated to expanding voting access, then burned the city’s Black community to the ground.

“This recognition is a way that we start to talk about, not only the history of Ocoee, but the history of the state,” said state Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, who sponsored the legislation.

He said in working on the bill, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Tuesday, he learned of other lynchings and acts of racial violence carried out across Florida, many still relatively unknown or discussed. Florida had one of the highest per-capita lynching rates during the Jim Crow Era, which Bracy said underscores the need for more education and reconciliation across the state.

“This bill is just a first step,” Bracy said at a press conference Wednesday, in front of an Ocoee memorial dedicated to the Black families who lost everything in the attack. “There’s much work to be done.”

The initial version of Bracy’s bill sought to provide financial reparations to the descendants of the Ocoee victims — both those killed, and those stripped of their homes and forced from their neighborhoods — but that provision was dropped in negotiations. The final law establishes a path to include the massacre in Florida school history curriculums, as well as in state museum exhibits and programming.

It also tasks Orange County Schools and state parks with finding facilities or areas to name in honor of the victims.

“This bill validates my great uncle, Julius ‘July’ Perry, one of Ocoee’s unsung heroes,” said Sha’ron Cooley McWhite, the great niece of Perry, who was lynched by the white mob. “Change is not only going to come, but change has come.”

Perry, a relatively affluent Black landowner, was ambushed at his home the evening of Nov. 2, 1920, by an angry white mob searching for Perry’s associate, Mose Norman, who had inflamed poll workers by trying to vote in the presidential election.

Perry and Norman had led voter-registration drives encouraging Black people, as well as women, to exercise the right at the ballot box. The 19th Amendment, establishing women’s suffrage, was ratified that August, as voter suppression persisted in the Jim Crow-era south.

The mob, organized by the Orange County sheriff, exchanged gunfire with occupants at the home, injuring Perry and reportedly killing two of the white men. The group arrested Perry, then set his home ablaze, as they would then do to the rest of the Black neighborhood — torching homes, churches and a fraternal lodge.

Later that night, the gang dragged Perry from the jail and hanged him in downtown Orlando, where he died.

Perry’s executioners were never identified or prosecuted.

About 100 Black people owned land in Ocoee before the attack, but the riot forced their exodus. It would be more than 50 years before Black residents returned to live in Ocoee.

It’s still unclear how many other Black men and women were killed during the violence, but one state report estimated as many as 60.

The city’s reckoning with what happened in the west Orange town almost 100 years ago has come recently.

Shortly after Ocoee elected its first Black commissioner in 2018, the city formally recognized the massacre in a proclamation. And just last summer, Orlando erected a marker memorializing Perry in downtown, after the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that researches lynchings and promotes racial justice, requested the act.

Bracy and McWhite said they want the progress and acknowledgement to continue, especially as the centennial of this state-sanctioned violence comes in November with another election. McWhite said she plans to help register people to vote in the fall, to continue her great uncle’s legacy.

And as activists and communities across the country work to address systemic racism amid the outrage and protests over the Minneapolis killing of George Floyd by police, Bracy said Florida’s renewed attention on what happened in Ocoee a century ago is even more important.

“Knowing our history … gives us a path forward,” Bracy said. “It’s important that people realize the sacrifice that was made.”

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)