The Ocoee Massacre — All Because Blacks Wanted To Exercise Their Right to Vote
“That was the night the devil got loose in Ocoee” — Armstrong Hightower, survivor of the Ocoee Massacre.
It’s called the “bloodiest day in United States political history.” For a whole century, the massacre that began on 2 November 1920 was a closely guarded secret in Orange County, Florida. In the town of Ocoee where the massacre occurred, it was something the residents didn’t want to talk about. Evidence was destroyed and stories were suppressed. Something terrible happened in this little Florida town. For a long time that’s all anyone knew.
Black families on their way to visit nearby towns would go out of their way to avoid Ocoee. They warned their children to “stay away from that place” without explanation. According to census records, Ocoee did not have a single Black resident for sixty years straight. Ocoee was a “sundown town”. Ocoee had a secret.
The early decades of the 1900s saw many violent clashes across the nation. White mobs were whipped up by vicious rumors, outright lies and hate, political propaganda, and a dose of good ole’ fashioned American racism.
The Town of Ocoee, Florida — 1920
For the white citizens of Ocoee, it was a proud town. A white-pride town. Their town was home to the third Ku Klux Klan unit formed in Florida. Two units of the United Klans of America were nearby.
They were proud of this. They were proud of all things white. According to some reports, 95% of the town’s law enforcement, public servants, lawyers, and judges were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
However, out of the 1100 citizens of Ocoee in 1920, approximately 500 of them were African Americans. The town was strictly segregated and the whites referred to the African American sections of town as the Northern Quarters and Southern Quarters. This reference to quarters was enforced by the whites to remind the Black citizens of the days of slavery.
The Battle Against Disenfranchisement of African American Voters
Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era was an effort to circumvent the 15th Amendment. The Old Democratic Party in the Southern states sought to retain their hold on power at any cost.
They implemented new laws, new constitutions, and practices to deliberately block Black citizens from registering to vote and voting. In the wake of President Woodrow Wilson’s support of Jim Crow laws, the Republican Party launched a concerted effort across the South to bring Black voters to the polls for the 1920 election. They hoped that overcoming the disenfranchisement of Blacks would shatter the Southern Democrat’s power bloc.
The response to this effort was met by overwhelming opposition in the South. The resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan accelerated, swelling the organization’s numbers in the lead up to the 1920 election. Along with the Ku Klux Klan came threats of violence and this was especially true in Florida. Florida offered a lot of promise for the Old Republican Party in 1920. If they could overcome the efforts to disenfranchise Black voters, there was an opportunity to make sweeping changes to benefit their constituents.
Judge John Moses Cheney, a Republican, was running for a Florida Senate seat in the 1920 election. He also ran a campaign to register African American voters in Florida. This effort was supported in Orange County by two prominent African American businessmen, Mose Norman and July Perry. State and local government officials knew white supremacy was in danger. They joined with the Ku Klux Klan in a last-ditch effort to stop Black voters at the polls.
The two worked to help African Americans register to vote including paying the poll tax for those who could not afford it. They met stiff resistance from the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. The white supremacists began a campaign of intimidation including the hanging of African Americans in effigy and the march of 500 KKK members through the town of Ocoee a few days before the election, on 29 October 1920. The effort to register African American voters was meeting with success. State and local government officials knew white supremacy was in danger. They joined with the Ku Klux Klan in a last-ditch effort to stop Black voters at the polls.
The White Supremacist’s Plan to Maintain Disenfranchisement
Their plan in Ocoee was to station minders outside the polls to turn away Black voters. According to one account, they stationed armed KKK members across the street from the polling station. When a Black voter would attempt to vote they were challenged by the minders placed near the polling booths.
Once challenged, the Black voter was required to appear before a notary public. In Ocoee, this was Justice of the Peace, R. C. Bigelow. As part of this plan, Bigelow voted early in the morning then left town on a fishing trip. This meant the Black voters had to make a long trip to Orlando to satisfy this requirement.
Election Day 2 November 1920
Julius “July” Perry avoided the attempt to block Black voters by getting his vote in before the whites were able to get their plan into place. He would be the only African American who was able to cast a vote in Ocoee that day.
That morning, when Mose Norman arrived to vote, he was turned away by the minders who claimed he still owed the poll tax. Norman then drove to Orlando to meet with Judge Cheney. He returned later that afternoon and attempted to vote again. Several conflicting stories make it difficult to discern what happened next. According to one of the accounts Mose Norman had a shotgun in his car. When he showed up to vote again the shotgun was seized by one of the white supremacists. He was then threatened and perhaps beaten before he was forced to flee the polling station.
A Night of Bloodshed and Fire
After the polls closed a group of whites began to gather in front of the two grocery stores in Ocoee. One unlikely story heavily slanted in the white supremacist’s favor says that an ex-slave warned this group of white men that trouble was brewing at July Perry’s house.
Further conflicting stories attempt to put some form of legality upon the affair by mentioning that one of the local law enforcement officials deputized the mob. Other accounts state the mob was not deputized. Whether it was a legal posse or an illegal mob is irrelevant since the atrocities they committed that night were far from legal.
The mob then set out for July Perry’s house. According to the story of the white supremacists, thirty-seven men were meeting in July Perry’s house. The casualties the white mob sustained and survivor accounts make this scenario an unlikely fabrication.
The mob surrounded the house while July Perry, his wife, and his daughter were inside. Perry’s sons and his two hired-hands were working in outlying farm buildings and not at the main house.
When the mob attempted to capture July Perry he defended himself. Shots were exchanged resulting in two whites dead and six injured. July Perry, his wife, and his daughter all sustained injuries. Perry, seriously injured, escaped the house and fled into a nearby cane field. The mob pursued and eventually captured him.
According to some accounts Perry was dragged behind a car into town and hung the next morning. Other accounts indicate Perry was taken to a hospital and then to the jail. According to those accounts, around 3:30 am on 3 November 1920, a mob of 100 white men stormed the jail and took July Perry to a light pole and hung him.
Later that morning Black undertaker J. B. Stone removed July Perry’s remains from the pole. When the whites of Ocoee caught wind of this, they warned Stone that if he ever took down another “cow” the whites had strung up, they would do the same to him.
Other events were unfolding during the same time the mob was murdering July Perry. A white man named Jim Graver and his Black minister Allen Franks began warning as many members of the Black community as they could of the impending violence.
The Violence Intensifies as More Whites Arrive in Ocoee
The white mob sent out a call for reinforcements from nearby communities including posting it to the broadcast screen used for polling results in Orlando. Hundreds of white men responded to this call, swarming into Ocoee, armed to the teeth. They declared their desire to bring harm to the Black inhabitants of Ocoee with the most vulgar and coarse language imaginable. Other acts of violence against Blacks began to break out in the Northern Quarters of Ocoee. African American homes were put to the torch, and many were killed in the fires.
Roosevelt Barton was hiding in July Perry’s barn. The mob set the barn on fire forcing Roosevelt out of the barn where the mob proceeded to shoot and kill him. Langmaid, a Black carpenter, was captured by the mob. They viciously beat him in the middle of the street. Then they held him down and castrated him. Maggie Glenlack and her pregnant daughter, fearing for their lives hid within their home. Their bodies were found beneath the charred ruins. Hattie Smith was visiting her pregnant sister-in-law in Ocoee when the violence broke out. Hattie managed to flee, but her sister-in-law and the rest of her family perished in the fire which consumed their home as they waited for help to arrive.
Fires and sporadic gunfire continued throughout the night, extinguishing the lives of the African American residents of the Northern Quarter. Those who made it out fled to the nearby towns of Apopka and Winter Garden or hid in the surrounding countryside.
The Exodus of Black Residents
When daylight came on 3 November 1920, the glut of racial violence perpetrated by the mobs of white supremacist finally ended. The Northern Quarter of Ocoee was no more. The homes, businesses, and churches of the Black community were reduced to smoldering ruins. The only building left standing was a schoolhouse, spared because it was county property.
The survivors asked for permission to collect and bury the dead. The town leadership granted them a day to carry out the task. The local officials followed this with a dire warning. Flee or die.
The residents of the untouched Southern Quarter and the survivors of the Northern Quarter took this threat seriously and the remaining 300–400 surviving African Americans fled the town, leaving behind their properties, their businesses, and their belongings. Ocoee officially became a whites-only town.
The Aftermath of the Massacre
It is unknown the exact amount of Black people were injured in the attack. The death toll ranges from 50 to 100. Orange County and the town of Ocoee went to great lengths in an attempt to cover up this evil act. Photos of the town during this time including the destruction of the Northern Quarter were destroyed. What newspaper coverage existed about the massacre was heavily tilted in favor of the white supremacists downplaying the atrocity.
The town of Ocoee became an all-white community. It joined thousands of other towns across the country, known as sundown towns. People of color were not welcome in such towns after sundown. Once the Black residents of Ocoee left town, the Ku Klux Klan maintained a cordon around the town meant to keep out African Americans. The town continued to have regular KKK rallies well into the 1960s.
Walter White of the NAACP traveled to Ocoee to investigate immediately after the massacre. He traveled undercover posing as a Northerner interested in purchasing orange groves in the Orange County area. According to White, the residents of the town were “still giddy with victory.”
The Story Emerges
The white community of Ocoee almost succeeded in their coverup. But starting in the mid-20th century curious individuals began digging. This led to years of research and investigation by numerous researchers. Through their efforts, the massacre has not been forgotten.
According to census data, the town of Ocoee was an all-white town from the time of the massacre until 1980. An African American did not settle in the town again until 1981.
During the 1990s the Democracy Forum and the West Orange Reconciliation Task Force began meeting to discuss ways to memorialize the victims. A historical marker honoring July Perry was placed in Heritage Square outside the Orange County Regional History Center, on 21 June 2019.
Senator Randolph Bracy of Florida introduced SB 8 — Relief of the Descendants of Victims of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Riots/State of Florida that passed in the Florida senate early in 2020. It was designed to provide reparations for descendants of the Ocoee Massacre victims. The bill unfortunately died in the Florida House of Representatives on March 14th, 2020.
Even though the 2020 election is now over, many Republicans are still holding onto the “Big Lie,” or the baseless claim that voter fraud cost former President Donald Trump the presidential election. Trump has managed to not only persuade his base that the election was “stolen,” but now many state legislators are using it as a justification to restrict voting rights.
In 2021, after the successful election of now President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, a bevy of voter suppression bills have been introduced at the state level. Because of the massive voter turnout for Black people in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, and Texas these states are now figuring out ways to have their own “Ocoee” because — if passed — it could make it harder for millions of Americans, especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) to cast their ballots. Georgia has already passed an extremely racist and restrictive bill that Governor Brian Kemp has signed into law, while also having a Black sitting Georgia State Senator kicked out of the Capitol, accosted, and abused by police. This is a slap in the face to all of the Black men and women who were lynched and murdered just for something as simple as voting. This country continues to tug at the heartstrings of racism, and it needs to stop. 🛑
The only way we can make it stop is voting, calling out racism when we see it, and fighting for policies that will change everything for the better. Anyone of us can do that. See you on the battlefield. It’s the least we could do for all of the Black people that have sacrificed, like Julius “July” Perry and the victims of the Ocoee Election Day Massacre.