Election Day 1920 gave us one of the most violent, horrific stories in the history of American democracy. And unfortunately, despite the lives lost and the unimaginable racism that precipitated the carnage, it's a tale that has largely been left untold.
It all happened in Ocoee, Florida, on November 2, when wealthy, landowning blacks within the rural community wanted to cast their ballots in the election between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. The violence began with a white lynch mob hanging one black man, and it culminated with an even larger mob terrorizing and torching the homes of an entire community of blacks. In the end, some historians estimate that as many as 500 blacks were forced from their homes. These people ran for their lives after being given an ultimatum: die or flee. Today, this bloody snapshot of American history is referred to as the Ocoee Massacre.
The 1920 election was special because it was the first time women were enfranchised to vote. Black women's organizations were mobilizing all over the country, according to Paul Ortiz PhD, director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. African American servicemen also had a strong case for wanting to vote, having served valiantly for this nation in World War I. Not only in Ocoee, but other parts of Florida stood to gain a great deal from having an influx of black votes, because those citizens could elect representatives who would address the many ways the state had lagged in social indicators such as schools and roads.
And yet, the opposition to black voting was immense leading up to the election. It helped fuel the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan throughout the South. The KKK responded to voter-registration drives for blacks in Florida by holding its own hostile demonstrations in cities like Miami and Orlando, threatening the kind of violence and terror that it ultimately perpetrated in Ocoee with impunity.
The tragic chain of events is said to have begun with Moses Norman, a wealthy and debt-free black resident of Ocoee, who was known for leading local voter-registration efforts. Unfortunately, like other blacks across Orange County, Florida, when Norman went to the polls on the morning of Election Day, he was turned away by white enforcers.
As Melissa Fussell writes in the William and Mary Law Review, "Should any black citizen attempt to vote, the officials would challenge their eligibility, and the only person who could verify their eligibility would be far away. Orange County Judge Bigelow went out of town in order to allow white backlash should the black citizens try to vote."
But Norman, was smart. He rode to Orlando to speak with another judge about possibly filing a lawsuit against those infringing on his rights. After visiting the judge, he came back to the polls, where he confronted the enforcers, demanding to either cast his ballot or get their names so he could report them. This led to violence.
Some accounts say that Norman managed to flee to the city completely, while others say he went to his friend July Perry's home, another landowning black man in Ocoee who had been helping with the voter-registration effort. It has been said that July Perry had voted early in the election to avoid being challenged at the polls. Thanks to the efforts of Perry and Norman, local whites were now worried about the boldness of local blacks; they wanted to make an example out of them, so Perry's home became a target.
Armed with guns, a white mob descended on Perry's property. A shoot-out between the family in the home and the mob on the outside ensued, with Perry managing to hit two of the white men, forcing the white terrorists to regroup. The mob returned later and captured Perry. He was taken to a jail in Orlando, where he was snatched up by a mob yet again. Perry was lynched the following day, according to several sources, including Jason Byrne's Florida History blog.
Drunk off the violence and lusting for more blood, the white mob turned its wrath on to two black areas of Ocoee. The mob set fire to rows of black-owned homes, black churches, and black school houses. The blacks in the community tried to fight back, using firearms in shoot-outs, but the mob prevailed and went about torturing anyone who remained. One black man, James Langmead, refused to leave. For his valiance, according to Fussell's account, he was castrated.
"One woman, heavily pregnant, had stayed in her home because she did not think she could run fast enough to escape the deputized whites," writes Fussell. "Her mother, unwilling to leave her alone, perished with her in the flames. One man hiding in a barn tried to escape when the mob set fire to it, but ran back inside to his death after the mob shot at him."
As many as 500 blacks were removed from their land. After the violent riot, the Klu Klux Klan set an embargo around the town to ensure that none of them could come back to their homes. In the meantime, the whites seized their property, sometimes with deeds requiring that the land "never be conveyed to Negroes" again.
The brutality of the Ocoee Massacre is just one example of the long quest African Americans have had in this country to participate in democracy. We see this same extreme oppression from the birth of this nation through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and right up to this very day.
While the right to vote is "guaranteed to all of us as citizens," Jennifer Clark, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, said to me, "you consistently see those in power craft it in a certain way."
Although murder and coercion are not tactics used to stop the black vote today, what we see now comes in the form of anti-voter-fraud efforts that arguably end up acting as voter-suppression laws, and a chipping away of the civil rights laws that helped blacks cast their ballots at the polls without taxes or arbitrary tests. According to Clark, since 2010, anti-voter-fraud laws have seen a real uptick. Clark also believes the US Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder has left many black voters vulnerable because it gutted the part of the Voting Rights Act designed to be a check on states like Florida, which have a history of discrimination at the polls, by making them get federal permission when they enact new laws that might have a racially discriminatory effects.
According to Clark, who represents a plaintiff on the infamous Texas photo ID case, credible studies show that there's no voter-fraud crisis nationwide. Instead, these actions are driven by partisanship and racism. But that hasn't stopped the most strident forces of the Republican Party from supporting voter ID laws or tinkering with polling places, making it harder for minorities and the poor to actually vote. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2016 that the Texas ID law actually had a discriminatory impact on African Americans and Latinos. Later this month, another hearing is scheduled to determine if Texas intentionally sought to discriminate.
"The same people who denied us the right to vote never gave up," Reverend Jesse Jackson, founder of RainbowPUSH and a two-time candidate for president, told me. His own efforts forced the Democratic Party to award primary votes proportionally, paving the way for Barack Obama to be a viable presidential candidate.
"There is no evidence of voter fraud. It's control, and you control the vote by denying it," said Jackson, noting that the Great Migration of blacks to the North, whom he called "refugees," was fomented by the Ocoee-style terror they experienced in the South. Because those people couldn't cast a ballot, they voted with their feet and moved to places where they could more easily participate in democracy.
While the obstacles facing black voters may persist to this day, so does July Perry's spirit of resistance and self-determination. Looking back on what happened at Ocoee on Election Day 1920 can help us see how far we've come and also why it's so important to continue to fight for the rights that people like Perry gave their lives for.
Lead Photo Caption: A gathering of the Ku Klux Klan in 1923 in Homestead, Florida. The Imperial Wizard of the Klan is somewhere in the group. Bettmann/Getty Image
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