A marble memorial at the site of a former African American cemetery in Ocoee, Florida, is a reminder of a shameful time in our history when good men and women perished in the face of bigotry and hatred.
1920 was a very tense time in America, especially in the South. Racial tensions were running high, injustices were commonplace, and violence was an everyday threat. It was a dangerous time to be an African-American.
Black men had served in World War I and returned home thinking they had earned a place in society, only to learn that the civil liberties they had fought to ensure for people overseas were denied to them in their own country. At the same time, the racist movie Birth of a Nation was touring the country to sell-out audiences of white citizens who felt threatened by both the emerging role blacks were playing and by foreign immigration.
A series of race riots and lynchings had taken place during the summer of 1919 in many American cities, known as the “Red Summer” for the blood that was shed. The Ku Klux Klan was experiencing a resurgence as bigoted whites tried to hang onto the status quo. Florida was a hotbed of activity, and it has been reported the state led the nation in lynchings per capita.
In 1920, the unincorporated community of Ocoee, near Orlando, was home to about a thousand people, slightly less than half of them black. These African-Americans lived in two neighborhoods, Methodist Quarters on the northern side and Baptist Quarters to the south. While many of the black members of the community were laborers or field hands in the local orange groves, several were businessmen and landowners who had attained some degree of affluence.
Many local whites were angered by this success and felt threatened by the prospect of blacks challenging the white supremacy that had reigned in the area forever. They knew that land equaled power and did not want blacks owning property or moving forward.
The campaign for the United States Senate seat in the area added greatly to the aura of danger that was hanging over Ocoee as the summer drew to a close. Traditionally, the white population had supported the Democratic party and maintained control of the voting process to make sure nothing changed. Very few black citizens voted, if any.
That year a Republican judge named John M. Cheney made a bid for the Senate, and the Republican party began to organize the black community to vote. Two strong supporters of Judge Cheney were Julius “July” Perry and Mose Norman, both prosperous black landowners. The two encouraged their fellow African-Americans to register to vote, even paying their poll tax.
Mose Norman had already earned the enmity of the local white population for his success. He owned a nice house, a farm, an orange grove, and drove a fancy convertible. Realizing how important his land was, he had rejected an offer of $1,000 an acre from a white businessman.
This activity did not go unnoticed by the local Ku Klux Klan, who sent a threatening letter to Judge Cheney. When that did not stop blacks from registering to vote, the Klan held a march through the community in full regalia, 500 strong, to send a message to the blacks to stay away from the polls.
On November 2, 1920, Election Day, Julius Perry and Mose Norman defied the Ku Klux Klan and went to the polls to vote. They were turned away and sent a message to Judge Cheney, who encouraged them to try again and to get the names of the black voters being denied their right to cast their ballots and the names of the precinct workers refusing them.
The details of the events that followed are debated even today along racial and political lines. Though newspaper accounts of the day give one account, it must be remembered that the newspapers, policemen, poll workers, and others supporting this version were all white, and many belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, as was expected at that time. The black community had a different story to tell.
All agree that later that afternoon, Mose Norman returned to the voting precinct, possibly accompanied by Julius Perry and a handful of other blacks. Some claim that Norman waved a shotgun in the air, demanding to be allowed to vote. At any rate, he was pistol-whipped and managed to flee in a car. Some reports say a group of Klansmen, deputies, or both, stopped the car a short distance away from the voting precinct and that Norman was again beaten, possibly killed. Others say he escaped.
Word of the clash at the voting precinct spread, and Klansmen from as far away as Georgia rushed to Ocoee. That evening a “posse” of whites led by Colonel Samuel Salisbury entered the black neighborhood, searching for Mose Norman and Julius Perry to punish them for attempting to vote, lynching being the common punishment in those days.
As the group stormed into Perry’s house, he shot and wounded Salisbury, and then turned to shoot another intruder coming in the back door, missing and wounding his daughter Coretha in the arm instead. By the time the shooting was over, two whites were dead, possibly killed by Julius Perry, possibly caught in the crossfire and shot by their own men. Perry was wounded at some point in the gun battle.
Perry was taken to the jail in Orlando, where the white sheriff then handed the keys over to the growing lynch mob. The prisoner was taken outside and hung from a lamppost near present-day Lake Concord and Judge Cheney’s house, and his body was riddled with bullets. A newspaper in Chicago later reported that a sign was hung from Perry’s body that read “This is what we do to niggers who try to vote.”
The rest of the night was a bloodlust of looting, arson, and murder as hundreds of Klansmen moved through the black community, torching homes and businesses and killing any blacks they encountered. Many were burned to death in their homes or shot as they tried to flee the flames. The blacks who could escape fled into the orange groves and swamps.
When the sun rose through the smoke the next morning, out of 495 African-Americans who had lived in Ocoee the day before, only two remained. As with so much that happened that terrible day, accounts vary depending on who is telling the story. But it is believed that as many as 60 black citizens were killed, though the newspapers reported that only seven people died, including the two white men killed at the home of Julius Perry. Twenty-five homes, two churches, a black school, several black-owned businesses, and a lodge were all burned to the ground. No African-American would live in Ocoee for over sixty years, until 1981.
For the next week, 250 deputized Klansmen occupied Ocoee, and nobody could enter or leave the town without their permission. The land belonging to the black citizens was divided up and sold to whites for $1.50 an acre. For years whites disputed this fact, claiming fair prices were paid for the land, though there are no records to support this.
No one really knows what became of Mose Norman. Many believe he was killed sometime during the violence of Election Day, either when his car was stopped following the confrontation at the voting precinct or later during the attack on the black community that night. However, one report has him escaping to New York City, where he supposedly went to work for the post office and died in Harlem in 1949.
Ironically, the other three key players in this tragedy would continue to be linked in a twisted act of fate. Today Julius Perry, the lynch mob victim; Samuel Salisbury, who led the attack on Perry’s home; and Judge John M. Cheney, whose Senate race precipitated the violence, are all buried in Orlando’s Greenwood cemetery. Salisbury, the white man who resisted the black vote and was committed to the separation of the races, lies for eternity in a grave only 100 yards away from the black man who lost his life in the struggle for equality.
Thought For The Day – The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.