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The Story of America’s Bloodiest Election Violence against Blacks You Didn’t Know

One hundred years ago, during the American general elections in 1920, a deadly event occurred, which many critics have termed the bloodiest day in modern American political history. It went down in history as “The Ocoee Massacre,” yet despite the gravity of the crime committed against Blacks, this piece of history has been swept under the carpet.

It all started after a black American male attempted to vote during the elections; on noticing him, the Ku Klux Klan responded with a rampage that led to every black person’s exile/death in Florida at that time.

According to political observers and historians alike, the most disheartening aspect of this history is that the perpetrators all got away with what they did for the rest of their lives.

Today, there are no markers in Ocoee and no excavation projects to locate the purported mass grave where most of the victims were buried.  Until recently, many descendants of survivors had no idea they were descendants of survivors or that they had been robbed of a valuable inheritance long before they were born.

“Most of the people living in Ocoee don’t even know that this happened there,” said Pamela Schwartz, chief curator of the history center.

Ocoee was founded in the 1850s by a White man who brought 23 enslaved African Americans with him, Schwartz said.

According to official census records available in the United States’ archives, as at 1920, about one-third of the Ocoee population town of 800 people was Black. Though it isn’t accurate to say Ocoee was integrated, there wasn’t a Blacks-only neighborhood across the proverbial tracks, as you might find elsewhere in the South.

“It was interspersed. It wasn’t like, ‘Here’s a Black part of town, here’s a white part of town,'” Schwartz said. “These people were neighbors for 30 years before the massacre happened.”

After World War I ended in 1918, the same trends happening nation-wide took hold in Ocoee, too. Black veterans returned home expecting better treatment, as they got in Europe, but white-supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced to keep that from happening.

To achieve the acceptance they needed, there were constant talks among the Black populace to participate actively in polities, but the Ku Klux Klan were firmly against this. They did not want Black people to vote; they also didn’t want women to vote. 

Many anti-suffragists argued that if women were permitted to vote, Black men might try to vote, too. However, a few of the white leaders participating in the elections stood their ground and moved for women and Black residents in the community to be allowed to vote.

A month before the election, two of the White leaders — attorney W.R. O’Neal and Judge John Cheney — received a threatening letter from the KKK. “We shall always enjoy WHITE SUPREMACY in this country, and he who interferes must face the consequences,” it read. Across Florida — in Daytona, Jacksonville, and Orlando — local KKK chapters held massive rallies to intimidate potential Black voters.

The threatening letter was also sent to White residents who helped Black residents register to vote.

Despite the threats, a handful of Black residents in Ocoee, both men and women, showed up to the polls on Election Day. A Black labor broker named Moses Norman showed up to vote. Election officials told Norman that he hadn’t paid his poll tax. He said he had, but he was turned away. Norman sought help from Cheney, the White judge, who advised him to try again. Again, he was turned away.

By the evening, a White mob had arrived from Orlando. A rumor spread that Norman was hiding out in the home of July Perry, a Black landowner and community leader in his early 50s who had been involved in the voter registration drive.

The mob surrounded his house. At some point, two White men were shot and killed — perhaps by Perry’s teenage daughter, probably by one another as they fired their weapons at the house. Then it went up in flames. So did a nearby AME church, where Norman and Perry were trustees, and at least two dozen other homes.

This was the beginning of what became a massacre. It may never be known precisely how many Black residents were killed that night.

Amazingly, the Perrys made it out of the house alive. His wife and daughter were taken to a jail in Tampa. Perry, shot in the leg, was taken to a prison in Orlando. Within hours, a lynch mob pulled Perry from his cell, and he was brutalized and killed. His body was left hanging in front of Cheney’s Orlando home.

No one was ever held responsible for any of the deadly violence. Agents for the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) showed up a few weeks later, but they made it clear they weren’t investigating murder, arson, or assault. They were interested only in election fraud. 

Although many historians and critics have tried to unravel the events on Election Day in 1920 at Ocoee, they all have the same tale. “The sentiment was, ‘It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie,'” Schwartz said.

What are your thoughts? Should we allow sleeping dogs to lie? 

Sources: National Archives and Records Administration, Washington post

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