Ocoee massacre

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Ocoee massacre
Part of Racism in the United States
LocationOcoee, Florida
DateNovember 2–3, 1920
Attack type
Deaths~56 blacks, 2 whites
PerpetratorsWhite mobs
No. of participants

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".[1]

The race riot started as a result of white attempts to suppress black voting. In Ocoee and across the state, various black organizations had been conducting voter registration drives for a year, in order to have effect on Election Day. Blacks had essentially been disfranchised in Florida since the turn of the 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 lightpost to intimidate other blacks.[2] Norman escaped, never to be found. Hundreds of other African Americans fled the town, leaving behind their homes and possessions.

Events preceding election day[edit]

Orange County, as well as the rest of Florida, had been "politically dominated by Southern white Democrats" since the end of Reconstruction.[3] But, in the weeks leading up to the presidential election of 1920, African Americans throughout the South were registering to vote in record numbers.[1] During this period, the Ku Klux Klan was having a revival, having established many new chapters since 1915. This resulted in a tense racial and political climate. Three weeks before election day, the KKK had warned the African-American community that "not a single Negro would be permitted to vote."[4]

Judge John Moses Cheney, a Republican running for the Florida Senate, had started a voter registration campaign to register African Americans to vote in Florida, because they had supported the Republican Party since Reconstruction.[3] Mose Norman and July Perry, both "prosperous African-American landowners in Ocoee," led the local voter registration efforts in Orange County, paying the poll tax for those who could not afford it.[3] In an effort to preserve white one-party rule, the Ku Klux Klan "marched in full regalia through the streets of Jacksonville, Daytona and Orlando" to intimidate opponents.[5] It threatened Judge Cheney prior to the election.[3]

Election day[edit]

African Americans were met with resistance from the white community when they attempted to vote on election day. Poll workers challenged whether African-American voters were really registered.[6] The voters had to prove they were registered by appearing before the notary public, R. C. Biegelow, who was regularly sent on fishing trips so that he was impossible to find.[6] However, African Americans, including Mose Norman, persisted but were "pushed and shoved away" from the polls.[6]

Norman contacted Judge John Cheney, who told him that interference with voting was illegal and told him to write the names of the African Americans who were denied their constitutional rights, as well as the names of the whites who were violating them.[7] Norman later returned to the polling place in Ocoee with a shotgun. Whether the shotgun was taken from Norman is not entirely clear, but whites at the polls drove off Norman using his own shotgun.[7][8]

The white community began to form a mob and paraded up and down the streets, growing "more disorderly and unmanageable."[7] The rest of the African Americans gave up on trying to vote and left the polling place.[7] Later during the evening, Colonel Sam Salisbury, a prominent white man who was a native New Yorker and a former chief of police of Orlando,[9] was called to lead a lynch mob to "find and punish Mose Norman."[3] He later proudly proclaimed his part in the following events.[5]

Invasion of Perry's home[edit]

The white mob was on its way to Norman's home when someone informed them that their target had been seen at the home of July Perry.[7] The mob, by then numbering about 100 men, arrived at Perry's house, demanding that Perry and Norman surrender.[9] When they received no answer, they attempted to break down the front door.[9] Perry, who had been warned about the mob, fired gunshots from inside the home in self-defense.[9] Exactly how many people were defending the house is uncertain; the whites estimated that there were several armed African Americans. Zora Neale Hurston wrote that Perry had defended his home alone.[10] Sam Salisbury knocked the back door open and was shot in the arm,[10] becoming the first white casualty.[9] Two other whites, veterans Elmer McDaniels and Leo Borgard,[8] were killed when they also tried to enter through the back door.[10] Their bodies were found hours later in the backyard.[8]

The white mob withdrew and put out a call for reinforcements to whites in Orlando, Apopka and Orange County, either calling them by phone or sending for them by car.[10] During the two- to three-hour lull while the whites were recruiting other men, July Perry, injured in the battle, attempted to flee with the help of his wife into a cane patch.[11] He was found by the white mob at dawn and arrested.[11] After Perry was treated at a hospital for his wounds, he was taken by a white mob from a vehicle while being transferred to a jail. They lynched him,[8] "and left his body hanging from a telephone post beside the highway."[11] Norman was never found.

Ocoee is razed[edit]

With reinforcements, the white mob took the conflict to the rest of the African-American community in northern Ocoee. The "white paramilitary forces surrounded the northern Ocoee black community and laid siege to it."[9] They set fire to rows of African-American houses; those inside were forced to flee and many were shot by whites.[10] At least 20 buildings were burned in total,[8] including every African-American church, schoolhouse, and lodge room in the vicinity.[12] African-American residents fought back in an evening-long gunfight lasting until as late as 4:45 A.M.,[9] their firearms later found in the ruins after the massacre ended.[8] Eventually, black residents were driven into the nearby orange groves and swamps, forced to retreat until they were driven out of town.[13]

The siege of Ocoee claimed numerous African-American victims. Langmaid, an African-American carpenter, was beaten and castrated.[10] Maggie Genlack and her pregnant daughter died while hiding in her home; their bodies were found partially burned underneath it.[10] 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.[10] 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 never came.[9]

After the massacre[edit]

The African-American residents of southern Ocoee, while not direct victims of the massacre, were later threatened into leaving, based on the Ocoee Massacre.[14] Annie Hamiter, an African-American woman residing in southern Ocoee (sometimes referred to as Mrs. J.H. Hamiter), suspected that the massacre was planned so that whites could seize prosperous African-American properties for nothing.[14] According to Hamiter, people in southern Ocoee were coerced by the threat of being shot and burned out if they did not "sell out and leave."[14] About 500 African Americans in total were rapidly driven out of Ocoee, resulting in its being nearly all white.[14] That fall, white residents had to work to harvest the citrus crop because black labor had fled the region.[15] No African-American residents settled there again "until sixty-one years later in 1981".[3]

July Perry's body was found "riddled with bullets" and swinging on a telephone post by the highway.[11] According to The Chicago Defender, his body was left near a sign reading, "This is what we do to niggers that vote." Another source has said he was hanged near the home of a judge who supported the black franchise. A local photographer was selling photos of Perry's body for 25 cents each; several stores placed the photo on exhibition by their windows. No one was prosecuted for his murder.[16] Perry's wife, Estelle Perry, and their daughter were wounded during the shooting at their home, but survived. The authorities sent them to Tampa for treatment in order "to avoid further disturbance."[15]

Walter White of the NAACP arrived in Orange County a few days after the riot to investigate events. He was traveling undercover as a white northerner interested in buying orange grove property in the county.[12] He found that the whites there were "still giddy with victory."[12] A local real estate agent and a taxi cab driver told him that about 56 African Americans were killed in the massacre.[12] The exact number could never be determined.[12] He also learned that many blacks thought the massacre was due to the white community's jealousy of prosperous African Americans, such as Norman and Perry.[14]

Supporters urged the House Election Committee of Congress to investigate the riot and voter suppression in Florida, with a view to suing under the Fourteenth Amendment, but it failed to act.

Remembrance and study[edit]

  • Lester Dabbs, a native to the area and future mayor of Ocoee, wrote his master's thesis on "A Report of the Circumstances and Events of the Race Riot on November 2, 1920 in Ocoee, Florida" (1969, Stetson University)
  • In the 1990s, the Democracy Forum and West Orange Reconciliation Task Force, made up of residents of Ocoee and Orange County, organized discussions to explore the events and honor the victims.
  • On Martin Luther King Day in 2010, the town of Ocoee sponsored a commemoration that included as keynote speaker Professor Paul Ortiz of the University of Florida, the author of a history of the events, who spoke about the 1920 Election Day massacre.
  • At 10:30 a.m. on June 21, 2019, a historical marker honoring July Perry was placed during a ceremony in Heritage Square outside of the Orange County Regional History Center.[17]
  • Melissa Fussell, a central Florida native and then William & Mary Law Student, wrote a Law Review piece exploring the details of the tragedy, including widespread concealment and property loss, and advocating for redress for its victims and their descendants.[18]

Representation in other media[edit]

  • Bianca White & Sandra Krasa produced a documentary film about the riot and related events, Go Ahead On, Ocoee (2002), produced by the University of Florida.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ortiz, Paul (May 14, 2010). Ocoee, Florida: Remembering the 'single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history' ", Facing South, The Institute for Southern Studies; University of Mississippi. Retrieved on 21 March 2018
  2. ^ Jeff Kunerth, "Report: Orange County ranks 6th in lynchings from 1877-1950", Orlando Sentinel, 11 February 2015; accessed 21 March 2018
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Bianca White & Sandra Krasa, Go Ahead On, Ocoee (2002), documentary film, University of Florida
  4. ^ Ortiz 2006, p. 214.
  5. ^ a b Ortiz 2006, p. 215.
  6. ^ a b c Ortiz 2006, p. 220.
  7. ^ a b c d e Hurston, The Ocoee Riot, p. 1.
  8. ^ a b c d e f "KILL TWO WHITES AND SIX NEGROES IN FLORIDA RIOT". The New York Times. The New York Times. November 4, 1920. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Ortiz 2006, p. 221.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Hurston, The Ocoee Riot, p. 2.
  11. ^ a b c d Hurston, The Ocoee Riot, p. 3.
  12. ^ a b c d e Ortiz 2006, p. 222.
  13. ^ Ortiz 2006, pp. 221–222.
  14. ^ a b c d e Ortiz 2006, p. 223.
  15. ^ a b "NEGROES FLEE RIOT REGION. Ocoee, Fla., Lacks Labor Following Election Lynchings". The New York Times. The New York Times. November 5, 1920.
  16. ^ Ethan Michaeli (12 January 2016). The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 132. ISBN 0-547-56087-7.
  17. ^ "Historical Marker Has Been Placed Honoring Lynching Victim July Perry". OCFL Newsroom. 2019-06-21. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  18. ^ "Dead Men Bring No Claims: How Takings Claims Can Provide Redress for Real Property Owning Victims of Jim Crow Race Riots". William & Mary Law Review. 2016-04-12. Retrieved 2019-08-20.

Further reading[edit]