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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 never mention the Klan and which diminish the number of people killed. However, as a Black woman, Hurston did not have the creative freedom to report the truth and her work was edited by a white man. Stetson Kennedy who helped with those edits said that Hurston’s absolution of the white residents of Ocoee should not be taken as historical truth because “…it was standard for racially sensitive stories at the time” to diminish white guilt and responsibility.


As a side note – Zora Neale Hurston’s father, The Rev. John Hurston, married Julius Perry and Estelle Betsey in 1898 and the families appeared to continue to have some social connections through Estelle’s brother George Betsey, also a Black homeowner who lost his land that night in Ocoee.

While a whitewashed version might be the history that current residents would like to center as the truth, earlier accounts demonstrate a different truth.


In 1969, a local teacher and school administrator wrote about Ocoee for his master’s thesis. Lester Dabbs spoke with many white survivors and descendants including Betty Hager’s father – Colonel Sam. C. Salisbury. In the year’s following his thesis work, Dabbs refused to speak again of the events or his research, feeling that they should be left in the past and lost to historical memory, but his original paper still demonstrates a version of the events that is likely closer to the truth..


Salisbury is identified as “a former West Point Cadet, Standard Oil Co. ship's captain, Ocoee City Official and participant in the events.” [1] His obituary in 1974 in The Orlando Sentinel, a few years after his interview with Dabbs, lists him as 84 which would have made him thirty in 1920. He was a graduate of West Point and served in both World War I and II, later served as the Chief of Police in Orlando and as a two-term mayor of Ocoee. When he died, he was survived by two daughters (including Betty), twelve grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren.


Salisbury told Dabbs that in 1920, at least “90 percent of all law enforcement officers, judges, public servants and lawyers” in Ocoee and the surrounding communities were active Klan members, including himself. This aligns with official records, which show that Florida was tied with Mississippi in the number of Black people murdered through lynching in Klan related attacks. Salisbury reported that he had been part of a group that warned the Black residents of Ocoee to stop their “inflammatory” conduct, a warning he felt was ignored and thus justified the attacks. [2] Salisbury’s account also confirms that the white residents were determined to prevent ANY Black voters from the polls that day.


Even in their Klan membership, Betty Hager continued to defend her father and other men in town for decades after they were dead.


“The Klan, at that time, it was necessary. The whites were just afraid of the blacks as the blacks were of the whites. With the blacks coming over and marauding, it just makes common sense.” [3]


Hager was the one that promoted Founder’s Day and began the celebration in 1994 to honor the town’s early leaders, the slave owners who later served the Klan in central Florida. She expressed disappointment in 1998 that the event parade was cancelled – seeing no irony in white people marauding through town to honor the two slave owners who founded Ocoee. She denied her own racism with a too common response for white people accused of bias “Some of my best friends are black,” she said, implying that the presence of Black friends meant she could not be racist.


Colonel Sam. C. Salisbury.


Official and unofficial records report that at least some of the hundreds of KKK members in Orlando over the previous weekend stayed to terrorize the Black communities in Ocoee on November 1st, using megaphones to remind the Black residents that there would be dire consequences should any Black person attempt to cast a vote as they marched through both the northern and southern sections.


But, in defiance Mose Norman returned to the polls that day with instructions to try again – and to take the names of any who refused him or other Black voters so that Judge Cheney could file a lawsuit against them following the election. While later accounts claimed he was returning to his car to get a gun and force his way to the polls, he remained firm in his conviction that the gun was an old hunting rifle and he was simply going to get paper and a pen to do as Cheney had asked - write down names.


“Norman returned to Ocoee with these instructions, along with a handful of black citizens again seeking to vote; as you can imagine, things did not go well. After again being forcibly turned away, he demanded the poll workers' names and exclaimed: “We will vote, by God!” At that time Norman was revealed to have a loaded shotgun (either on his person or in his car) and an altercation ensued. Overpowered and beaten by the butt of his own gun, he escaped from the scene with help from friends (possibly Reverend Edward Franks),” [1] says the official version. Again, we will likely never know which account is true.


After they drove Norman and the other Black people away again, the Klan leaders convened and agreed that Norman needed to be taught a lesson to deter others from seeking to do the same. They pursued Norman and that brought them to Perry’s home. Norman had come and gone, but the white mob needed someone to set their example. So, led by Klan member and former Orange County Police Chief Sam Salisbury, they attempted to seize Perry instead when he opened the door that night and explained Norman was not there. Perry had long been a problem for them, and this presented an opportunity to diminish his influence with other Black residents of Ocoee. Salisbury’s record states that Perry’s daughter shot him that night after her father was attacked – and he claims that at least thirty-seven armed Black men then fired on the five or six white men in Perry’s yard, killing the two white men. Perry’s nephew, Richard Allen Franks who was the son of Estelle Perry’s sister Carrie, says that was untrue and that Perry was in the house with just his wife, 19-year-old daughter, and two sons, with two hired hands bedded down out in the barns on the property.


Both Estelle and Coretha Perry were wounded in the attacks, and some reports claim that it was Coretha who joined her father, defended her home, and killed one of the white men who died that night. Had the two women been taken to the Orlando jail with July Perry, they would have likely been lynched with him. Their arrest and detainment in Tampa likely saved their lives.

Coretha Perry Cadwell.


Perry was badly wounded, beaten, shot, then dragged behind a vehicle to the hospital in Orlando. Within hours, he had surgery to fix his wounds, was taken to the jail, and from there was taken by that same mob and lynched on Country Club Road, near the home of John Cheney, who had lost his bid for the Senate the night before. It was a reminder to the Black people in Orange County, but also to any white people like Cheney who might encourage Black voters.


The actions of the white residents of Ocoee would not stop until the day of November 4th. “Their vengeful lust not yet satisfied, the crowd moved on… they trounced from one house to another getting increasingly emboldened and vicious as they went. They fired guns and torched homes, creating panic for the dozens of fleeing families. While some tried to fight back, out-manned and out-gunned, it was largely in vain. Throughout the day and into the early morning hours of November 4th (as late as 4:45 AM), the vile gang terrorized the northern community.” Those who survived remembered terror. Most of the survivors never went back to Ocoee. Coretha Perry said near the time of her death that she never wanted to see her hometown again – not even on a map. [1]


After they burned the town and drove out the Black residents, the KKK led by Sam Salisbury was not finished. They set up barricades to prevent any former residents from returning to collect personal or family items and they set up barricades in neighboring communities to prevent the homeless refugees from moving into east Orlando or nearby Winter Garden seeking refuge with friend's or family.

 

And the survivors moved on.


On June 20, 1926, Estelle married John Eads. Estelle died in Yalaha, Lake County, Florida in 1952.


Coretha Perry (Born 15 Mar 1899) married William Alexander Caldwell. She died in Tampa, Hillsborough County, Florida on September 12, 1990.


Mose Norman headed to Apopka after seeing his friend July Perry that night. He kept heading north and lived the remainder of his life in Harlem, New York where he died in 1949.


The land that the Black residents of Ocoee lost when they were burned out and driven into the Florida swamps in 1920 is estimated to have a current worth of over $9 million dollars. Following the events. J.M. Sims claimed and sold all the Black property that had been forcibly abandoned. It would prove a false victory. There were not enough white workers to do the labor that had helped Ocoee prosper and no Black people would work for Ocoee businesses or landowners for over forty years.


In the 1920 Census, which had just been completed that November, Ocoee had 495 Black residents. In 1930, two Black residents lived in Ocoee. That was the last year that Black people would be listed on the community Census records until 1980. “In fact, not a single African-American dared live in Ocoee until 1978. The city didn’t hire its first black worker until 1986. And for 18 years following the 1920 massacre, not a single black vote was cast in all of Orange County.


Until at least 1959 there was a sign posted at the town line that said: “Dogs and Negroes Not Welcome.” And even up into the 1990s there was a common bit of wisdom passed down among black families not to be caught in Ocoee after sundown.” [2]


It was nearly twenty years before a Black person tried to vote IN ANY PRECINCT in Orange County, Florida.

One of the families of Ocoee before 1920.


“The Ocoee massacre was part of the Red Summer, a period of racial terror from 1917 to 1923, when white mobs razed prosperous Black communities across the country. In 1923, more than 10,000 white men burned Rosewood, another Florida town, to the ground. In an effort to make reparations, 71 years later Florida passed a law providing free in-state tuition to Rosewood descendants, along with $1.5 million to be divided between the remaining 11 or so survivors.” [1]


“We are 100 years into this and we are still dealing with voter intimidation, voter suppression, and issues of race and violence,” says Narisse Spicer, a great-granddaughter of John and Lucy Huckey, who survived the massacre with their two children by hiding in the woods. “It is definitely time, and well overdue, to start thinking about how we can change the future so that future generations don’t experience the same thing.”


Works Cited

Byrne, Jason. "Ocoee on Fire: The 1920 Election Day Massacre." Medium. November 23, 2014. https://medium.com/florida-history/ocoee-on-fire-the-1920-election-day-massacre-38adbda9666e (accessed September 4, 2021).


Combs, Sydney. "Descendants of an Election Day massacre reflect 100 years later." National Geographic. November 5, 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/descendants-ocoee-election-day-massacre-reflect-100-years-later-voting (accessed September 4, 2021).


Erickson, Edward. "Dead Wrong." Orlando Weekly. October 1, 1998. https://www.orlandoweekly.com/orlando/dead-wrong/Content?oid=2258296 (accessed September 2021).


Quesinberry, Amy. "This year's Ocoee Fall Music Festival is set for Nov. 6 and 7." Orange Observer . June 10, 2020. https://www.orangeobserver.com/article/ocoee-renames-founders-day-to-reflect-music-event (accessed September 4, 2021).

[1] (Combs 2020) [1] (Byrne 2014) [2] (Byrne 2014) [1] (Byrne 2014) [1] (Erickson 1998) [2] (Erickson 1998) [3] (Erickson 1998) [1] (Erickson 1998) [1] (Quesinberry 2020)



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