Ocoee, Florida, 1920: Part 3

“Growing up, the only thing I knew about Ocoee, was that we didn’t go there. Nobody said why, and I just assumed growing up that it was just a town for white people. “

Francine Boykin, 2020 news report on Ocoee

For over twenty-five years, beginning in 1994, the white residents of Ocoee remembered the history and founding of their town with honor and pride each fall. In July of 2020, shortly after the Florida governor announced that the history of what happened in Ocoee in 1920 would be taught in every public school in the state, some started to push back on the whitewashed history. IN 2020, the Founder’s Day festival became the Ocoee Fall Music Festival. The festival organizers did not disguise their reasons for the change.

“In the efforts to unite everyone and put negative connotations of Ocoee Founders' Day behind us, we have rebranded the festival,” reported Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson on social media. [1] Johnson went on to explain that in all the years of the festival, no one ever stopped to consider the memory or the descendants of those who died. The fact that the festival took place the weekend closest to the anniversary each year was due to weather – not to try and memorialize the racial violence that attacked the Ocoee Black community in 1920 according to this account of history.

So, when the community made the decision to honor the 100-year anniversary and history of the riots and massacre in 2020, they compromised. The last weekend in October up through the first of November would honor the victims. The following weekend’s festival would honor the legacy of the town – but the name would be changed to the Ocoee Fall Music Festiva;.

Most of the residents are still opposed to the name change and when asked, call it the Founder’s Day festival. Others legitimately ask – how can you honor the victims and then a few days later honor the former slave owners who perpetrated and prospered after the Black residents were driven out of Ocoee?

To their credit, the festival organizers continue to try and push for change. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2021, they hosted the “Inspire Uplift & Unite” concert which featured CeCe Winans. The free event drew a fraction of the 20,000 attendees of the main festival each fall. But they have also compromised. The festival is now listed using both names - the original name in parenthesis).

Ocoee Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sits in the center of the white section of historic Ocoee. Pictures taken on September 5, 2021 by KFR.

Why did Julius “July” Perry and so many others die that November night? Can we reclaim history that has been whitewashed and uncover the truth of long-past events? Who was July Perry – a community leader as remembered by his family and those who knew him, or the instigator who “murdered” two white men in his front lawn found reflected in the newspaper accounts? Or should he be remembered instead as an early Civil Rights activist who died through violence not unlike later leaders like Medgar Evers?

According to the historians, Perry was a labor broker for Black and white workers in the growing citrus grove and turpentine industries in central Florida. Because of the proximity to the railroad hub in nearby Orlando, farmers in Ocoee could get their products to market easily, which made the land those orchards more valuable.

Labor brokers were early labor negotiators. They found workers and paired them with employers, but they also advocated for workers’ rights and fair pay. Perry is remembered for being tough and sometimes, “meaner than a junkyard dog,” according to Francine Boykin, who grew up in nearby Apopka in the 1950’s and who later became a member of Democracy Forum group who pushed to tell the story of Ocoee.

When the Ku Klux Klan marched through downtown Ocoee on November 1, 1920, the Black residents of Ocoee were prospering. With that prosperity came the ability to pay poll taxes and vote – something the Klan had marched to prevent all over the state. Judge John Cheney – a white attorney in Orlando who was hoping to be the first Republican elected In the state – was pushing the Black vote/voters to support his own campaign. Cheney had been working with Perry and with Perry's friend Mose Norman.

After Mose Norman attempted to vote the first time, he went to see Cheney who told him to go back, try again, and write down the names of those who prevented him from voting. After he was turned away again and beaten, he went to the home of July Perry to report on his experiences. So far, every single Black resident including those who had paid their poll taxes, were left off the rosters to vote. The only person who could correct that error and add the voters back to the roster was a local notary who was conveniently gone on an all-day fishing trip that November 2nd.

Whether the white mob that came to July Perry’s home that night trailed Mose Norman there or whether Perry was also on their agenda because of his work as a labor negotiator will likely never be known. But when it was over, two white men laid dead in Perry’s yard, his home was burning, an unknown number of Black people (between 30 and 60 by most accounts) were dead.

A view looking down the Main road through Ocoee.

Julius Perry and Mose Norman were friends who had arrived in Ocoee together in the 1880’s with a third man, Valentine Hightower. By 1920, the three men were some of the most prosperous in Ocoee, which angered their white neighbors. There was also no escaping the racial realities of the community which sat on land once owned by Dr. J. Starke who arrived in the area in the 1850’s with thirty slaves, intent on farming the eastern shores of Lake Apopka. Captain Bluford M. Sims arrived soon after that, and purchased land to build a citrus nursery after serving the Confederacy. That land became the center of the white community of Ocoee – with the Black community sandwiching it in two sections which were called the northern quarters and the southern quarters, or to residents - the Methodist and Baptist quarters for the two Black churches that centered the communities.

Perry was born in South Carolina in 1868, the child of two formerly enslaved people. According the 1920 Census, he was 50 years old, could read and write, owned his home free of a mortgage, and lived with his wife Stella (36) and their children, 19-year-old Coretha (spelled Corycha in the Census records), Charles (16), Clifford (14), Louise (12) and Adolph (10). Perry had done well for himself. Ten years earlier his home was still mortgaged. The 1910 Census also shows one more child – Bessie who was a year older than Charles which made her 9 in 1910. Public records also show another daughter – Merrie Perry – who was killed in 1919 at age 8, which means she was born and died between censuses and never appears in those records. Merrie’s cause of death is listed as an accidental gun shot.

The three Black men leased land from Starke and Sims to farm. Recreated land ownership maps from the Orange County Regional History Center’s exhibit on Ocoee showed that almost all that leased land was still owned by white men in 1910, but by 1920 the ownership had transferred as mortgages were paid off. By 1930, there were no Black businesses or land ownership left and both Black churches had been burned.

As voting day, November 2nd, went on, the Black community of Ocoee was warned. An account of the events, written shortly after them as part of the Federal Work Project, says that most of the Black residents had already fled into the citrus groves to hide when the white mobs appeared that night, or the death toll might have been much higher. In fact, after being turned away from the polls and beaten, Mose Norman fled Ocoee and would never return.

The WPA project account also notes that Perry was enraged as the white mob started burning the Black community because there was already one family murdered by the white mob. Maggie Genlack and her daughter – who had not fled because the younger woman was due to give birth any day - attempted to hide from the mob burning their home. They were shot and left to die in the flames, enraging their neighbor July Perry.

In recent years, as the story of what happened in Ocoee has been resurrected from the ashes of where it was buried by whitewashed history, the white descendants have tried to claim that it was all outside people who attacked the Black residents of Ocoee. They note that the Black residents were given some compensation by Sims to show how supportive they were of their Black neighbors. Compensation may have been offered, but it was not fair according to the land's value. Before Bluford Sims resold his property. Valentine Hightower was given just $10 for one 37-acre tract that he owned. None of the residents were compensated for the possessions or their homes. - just the land.

July Perry, Associated Press.

White descendants of the event have been trying to to correct what they claim is a wrong reflection of the massacre for decades. For example, Betty Hager’s father, Sam Salisbury, was the first to attack Perry’s home in 1920 and she later became the first city commissioner of the town in the 1960’s. Before her death in 2010, she asserted that the white attack was justified after Mose Norman brought a gun to the polls. Like places where other racial massacres and atrocities have occurred – the descendants of the perpetrators all claim that this single event is not representative of Ocoee or the racial diversity of Ocoee.

In 1998, when the Orlando Weekly interviewed Ocoee residents, most of the white people like Betty Hager wanted to ignore the event and keep pretending it had not happened. If it did happen, they insisted, it was because of people from outside of Ocoee. This rewriting, to always point to the mythical one-armed men who came in to do harm to the community, is not uncommon when racist scars in a community are exposed.

“There’s no historical proof that a massacre occurred,” says Randy Freeman in that 1998 Orlando Weekly article. “Obviously a travesty occurred. People from Tampa came in, and from other places – Sanford – they were KKK members, wearing hoods. Tom Shuman’s grandfather – my grandfather – stood in front of barns with shotguns to protect black citizens.” [2]

His views are echoed by other descendants like Nancy Maguire, who in 1998 was the curator of the Withers-Maguire house, Ocoee’s historical museum. But all evidence left shows that while some outside KKK members may have participated, they were led and encouraged by the white leaders of Ocoee.

The debunked assertions are supported, they claims, in a WPA article written by Black Florida writer Zora Neale Hurston from nearby Eatonville, which