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It's been 100 years since the Ocoee Massacre, the bloodiest Election Day in US history

This dark and racist chapter in American history went forgotten and unacknowledged for decades

It's been 100 years since the Ocoee Massacre, the bloodiest Election Day in US history
Cover Image Source: Getty Images/ Protesters participate in the BLD PWR and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles final march to the polls on October 28 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Fury)

100 years ago on this day, in a small Florida town west of Orlando, a raging White mob murdered dozens of African Americans, set fire to their houses, and drove them out of the community. While there are at least 129 accounts of what happened on November 2, 1920, in Ocoee, this dark and racist chapter in American history went forgotten and unacknowledged for decades. "Most of the people living in Ocoee don’t even know that this happened there," Pamela Schwartz, chief curator of the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando, told The Washington Post.

 



 

 

According to Schwartz, Ocoee was founded in the 1850s by a White man who brought with him 23 enslaved African Americans. Following the Civil War, many Confederate veterans resettled in the town and hired Black laborers to work on their land. These laborers began seeing prosperous time starting 1888 when they were able to purchase the very land they'd been toiling over from their White employers, bringing them wealth and security often denied to Black folks in the Jim Crow South. However, with the resurfacing of white-supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan after World War I ended in 1918, the prosperity they'd enjoyed for three decades was once again in danger.

 



 

 

The racial tensions were heightened by the fight for women's suffrage as many anti-suffragists argued that if women were permitted to vote, Black men might try to vote, too. Meanwhile, in Ocoee, Black and White Republican leaders held clinics to show Black residents how to register to vote, pay a poll tax, and cast a ballot. A month before the election, two of the White leaders — attorney WR O'Neal and Judge John Cheney — received a threat from the KKK. "We shall always enjoy WHITE SUPREMACY in this country and he who interferes must face the consequences," the letter read.

 



 

 

Despite the threats, a handful of Black residents showed up to the polls on Election Day in Ocoee and — according to two accounts — cast their ballots without incident in the morning. The spark for a racist inferno was lit in the late afternoon when a Black labor broker named Moses Norman showed up to vote. Election officials told Norman that he couldn't cast his ballot as he hadn’t paid his poll tax while the labor broker argued that he had. Norman then sought help from Judge Cheney, who advised him to try again. He was turned away again.

 



 

 

According to CNN, Norman was ultimately driven away by White residents and went to take refuge at the house of his friend July Perry, a Black landowner and community leader in his early 50s who had been involved in the voter registration drive. A White mob tracked him down at Perry's home, where a group of African American residents had assembled, and surrounded the property. It's unclear who fired first, but violence broke out, killing two White men and injuring Perry. The mob called in reinforcements and came back with a vengeance.

 



 

 

Then, it went up in flames. Over 250 White people — including members of the Ku Klux Klan — torched a nearby AME church and at least two dozen other homes. "Basically the options were leave and get shot, or stay and burn,” said Schwartz. It's not clear how many African Americans were killed that night. While newspaper accounts said six, witnesses remembered as many as 30 to 60. Perry was lynched in Orlando and despite their efforts to fight back, nearly all of the African Americans in Ocoee were eventually forced to abandon their hard-earned properties and leave town. No one was ever held responsible for any of the deadly violence.

 



 

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