ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s a story that some in Central Florida have likely never heard before.
Yet, what happened 100 years ago, on another presidential election day in 1920, left profound ripples of pain. A simple act of voting led to a lynching in Orlando, left dozens more dead, and scattered Black families to others parts of the state.
It also sowed deep seeds of mistrust within the community of Ocoee, which still grapples with these issues.
“People knew the name Ocoee was now synonymous with violence and terror,” said historian Benjamin DiBiase, who serves as the director of educational resources for the Florida Historical Society.
“The town has a stigma about it and that stigma was it was a sundown town,” explained William Maxwell, who chairs the city of Ocoee’s Diversity Board. “If you were Black, it was an unwritten law that you did not allow darkness to catch you within the city limits.”
Dibiase said what happened, now referred to as the Ocoee Election Day Riots or Ocoee Massacre, is often left out of history books, along with accomplishments of people of color. Whitewashing is pervasive, he said, and stems from decades of racial tension.
“This violent past, people don’t want to think about. On top of that, within the white community, there was a suppression of information. A concerted effort to say that didn’t really happen,” he said.
Climate of Conflict
From the period of late Reconstruction to the beginning of the Jim Crow South in Florida, there was a codified legal effort on state and local levels to disenfranchise Black Americans, pushing them to the fringes of society, Dibiase said.
That came in the form of segregation within public facilities, housing options and access to education. In addition, one of the most oft-repeated tactics was to suppress the community’s voting rights, imposing upon Black Americans everything from literacy tests and poll taxes to violent intimidation or violence at the polls.
The Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilante groups had a resurgence, forming new chapters and parading through towns.
“In fact, there was a parade in the summer of 1920 right through downtown Ocoee,” said Dibiase. “Parades were meant as visible intimidation tactics.”
According to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, or OPPAGA — the research arm of the Florida Legislature — while Ocoee was incorporated in the 1920s, a number of African Americans began moving to the town in the late 1800s, particularly the northern quarters, near the northwestern part of Lake Starke.
At the time, the South was controlled by the Southern Democratic Party, a party of segregation. That is, until the Republican Party, which had little power in Florida until then, launched an effort to register as many African-Americans as they could, pushing towards civil rights.
This effort continued through the mid-20th century, said Dibiase.
As grassroots groups sprang up, a prominent Black businessman, Julius ‘July’ Perry worked with local church leaders and community organizers to help others to vote; they registered fellow Ocoee citizens, paid their poll taxes and ferried people to the polls, said Dibiase.
But, there was trouble ahead.
“[Perry] gets on the radar of the KKK and once you stick your head above the hedge, you’re a marked man,” he said.
According to Dibiase and other researchers, on November 2, 1920, both Perry and another resident, Moses ‘Mose’ Norman, attempted to vote, but were met with resistance.
And while there are conflicting accounts about what happened next, historians said that Norman fled the city before a white mob of Ocoee residents formed and went looking for Perry.
From the time he was a child, Stephen A. Nunn felt his calling was to be a pastor.
As he got older, he realized he had a gift for connecting with others, encouraging them with grace and mercy.
When he was about 16 years old, Nunn visited his grandmother for breakfast. He was intrigued by pictures he’d often seen atop her television, he knew it was her father, but nothing more. Then, he decided to ask her more. What he learned that morning changed the course of his life.
“She said, ‘I’m going to tell you something I vowed to never talk about again, but I feel you need to know’,” he recalled she said, before launching into a story about what happened that November night of 1920. That was the night when the mob came looking for Perry, Nunn’s great grandfather.
Nunn said that his grandmother was only a teen at the time, but suddenly found herself faced with imminent danger.
“July Perry, seeing him through my grandmother, had to be a very courageous man,” said Nunn.
WATCH: Stephen Nunn Tells July Perry’s Story, as Told by His Grandmother
The militia of townsmen showed up at the family’s home, demanding to meet with her father outside. Several tried to force their way through the door, leading to gunfire.
“It was so intense, you could see the tracers of the bullets flying through their home,” Nunn said. “She said ultimately her daddy took a shot in his body. He was wounded greatly and he wanted to see that she and her mom and siblings would get to safety.”
It was then they spied what Nunn’s grandmother called a ‘dog or cat hole’ in the door, through which they’d end up crawling.
“She prayed and said, ‘Lord, would you show me a way out of here to get us to safety?’ She said she saw a ray or beam of light shining a path through a field,” he said. “She said, ‘We got on our stomachs and we crawled out of this cat hole or dog hole, we proceeded through this corn field or whatever it was’.”
All the while, the family could see the men surrounding their home, talking and shooting. Then, his grandmother offered: “And yet, they never saw us.”
The mob apprehended Perry; he was later lynched and shot, Dibiase said. The vigilantes also set their sights on the northern portion of Ocoee, razing African-American churches, buildings and homes.
“Most contemporary historians would put it between 20 and 40 people killed, outright murdered in the street,” he said.
At least 250 African American residents were displaced as they fled the town, leaving behind their homes and property.
Within weeks, advertisements began popping up in newspapers from Orlando to Miami, “offering the sale of groves and grove land in Ocoee,” the state’s OPPAGA said in its report.
The incident led to congressional and state investigations, yet no one was prosecuted or found culpable.
A Stigma, Difficult to Overcome
In the aftermath, how others perceived Ocoee, the western Orange County city that grew around Starke Lake, changed dramatically.
“Oral histories of folks [detail] literally driving miles out of their way to avoid driving through Ocoee,” Dibiase said.
William Maxwell, a retired major in the U.S. Army who has lived in Ocoee for the past 25 years, grew hopeful he and others could change the stigma, imagining a “sunrise town” instead.
For two years, Ocoee’s Diversity Board researched the Ocoee Massacre, drawing from textbooks and interviews.
They then planned a series of events, spanning November 1 through November 8, sessions steeped in history, to commemorate 100 years since the event took place.
“I feel a total responsibility to tell the truth,” Maxwell said.
But, as they planned, they quickly found ripples of hurt ran deep, especially as they coordinated with descendants.
“While it wasn’t stated, I felt like there was still racial tension,” said Nunn, who now lives in Tampa and founded the Julius “July” Perry Foundation. “We wanted to celebrate and be a part of this remembrance… I don’t believe the door was open and hand of welcome extended in the degree.”
“It is, not to me, about July Perry; it is not about Mose Norman, though those were the two primary figures. I believe this event should be about all the people in the area at that time,” said Maxwell. “I deeply regret we were never able to form a working relationship, because I believe it could’ve collectively been something above and beyond anything anyone could’ve ever conceptualized, individually.”
“We now have an opportunity through situations like this to educate,” said Nunn. “We have the ability to attempt to change the course of history, not within the time it existed, but in a time of today. I don’t believe racism is something you’re born with; it’s something you learn.”
“I want them to walk away with the remembrance that the city acknowledged what took place. The city accepted responsibility for what took place, finally,” said Maxwell. “But, how do we move beyond the bitterness of what took place? I think it is going to require coming to the table with everyone, sitting down … and agreeing to disagree.”