The Little-Known Story of America’s Deadliest Election Day Massacre

A new exhibition on the 1920 Ocoee massacre examines the Florida city’s history of voter suppression and anti-black violence

July Perry
Prominent local businessman July Perry was among the 1920 Ocoee massacre's victims. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

When black labor broker Moses Norman showed up to vote in Ocoee, Florida, on November 2, 1920, white poll workers turned him away, unceremoniously informing him that he had failed to pay a $1 poll tax. Undeterred, Norman consulted Orlando Judge John Cheney, who advised him of his rights and encouraged him to try again. Upon returning to vote—a show of defiance that attracted the attention of local members of the Ku Klux Klan—Norman reportedly clashed with a growing crowd of incensed observers.

Fearful of the brewing violence, Norman told his business partner, Julius “July” Perry, that he planned to leave town. (Norman was later recorded living in New York City.) That night, a group of armed white men searching for Norman showed up at Perry’s house. A gunfight ensued, and by the end of the evening, the 50-something Perry had been lynched and strung up from a telephone post near Judge Cheney’s home.

In total, the mob of around 250 burned 22 homes, 2 churches and a fraternal lodge. The number of black residents killed in the attack remains unknown, with estimates ranging from 3 to 60. Several contemporary observers placed the death toll at between 30 and 35.

One hundred years later, Orlando’s Orange County Regional History Center is hosting an exhibition commemorating the victims of what historian Paul Ortiz deems “the single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history.” As Stephan Hudak reports for the Orlando Sentinel, the show—titled “Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920”—draws on land records, genealogies and oral histories to tell the long-suppressed stories of Norman, Perry and other Ocoeeans targeted by the white mob.

The culmination of three years of research by the center’s chief curator, Pam Schwartz, and her staff, the exhibition reflects the challenges associated with “piecing together a narrative that was quite literally and deliberately torn apart, of illustrating lives that had been forcibly erased from most records,” writes Matthew Taub for Atlas Obscura. Accounts of the massacre vary widely, in large part due to the decades-long cover-up that followed the attack.

Installation view of the "Yesterday Was Home" exhibition
Installation view of the "Yesterday Was Home" exhibition Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

“Yesterday, This Was Home” strives to shift the conversation surrounding the massacre by clarifying the context in which it happened.

Schwartz tells the Washington Post’s Gillian Brockell that Ocoee, while not fully integrated, offered black residents more financial opportunities than most other places in the Jim Crow South. In 1920, around one-third of the city’s 800 inhabitants were black.

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

Both Perry and Norman were labor brokers, or organizers who negotiated with white landowners on behalf of the black workers who staffed their farms, reports Anthony Colarossi for local broadcast station WFTV.

“At the time he had amassed a pretty well-known image there in the city of Ocoee as being someone that everyone knew,” says Stephen Nunn, Perry’s great-grandson, to WFTV. “And he was not only a friend really to just the black community. He really was a friend to some of the white community as well. But, you know, there’s always those that just are not going to be accepting to change, into something different, than control.”

Speaking with the Sentinel, Rachel Allen, director of the Peace and Justice Institute at Valencia College, attributes the outburst of violence to white locals’ desire to “disrupt and intimidate and frankly terrorize” leading members of the black community.

“Whites called it a riot because their perception was blacks were violent, dangerous, needing to be controlled and they started a riot, of course, none of which the historical records show was true,” she adds. “The black perception is it was a massacre, a violent attack on a prospering neighborhood.”

On the night of the attack, Schwartz tells the Post, “the options were leave and get shot, or stay and burn.”

A letter sent to Judge John Cheney ahead of the 1920 election
A letter sent to Judge John Cheney ahead of the 1920 election Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center

In the immediate aftermath of the Ocoee massacre, white residents openly bragged about their actions. They also “moved quickly to dispose of African American property,” selling off fertile farmland without compensating black landowners, according to a 2019 government report.

The Ocoee massacre was just one of numerous assaults that took place during the so-called “Red Summer,” a period of racial terror that spanned 1917 to 1923. During this six-year stretch, white mobs terrorized black communities across the South in order to prevent black people from “[asserting] their equality or autonomy,” David F. Krugler, author of 1919, The Year of Racial Violence, tells National Geographic’s Deneen L. Brown. Attacks perpetuated during this period included the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which resulted in the deaths of some 300 black people; the 1923 Rosewood Massacre; and the 1917 East. St Louis Race War.

By 1930, the number of black residents in Ocoee had plunged from 255 to 2. Black people only started returning to the area in the 1970s, per Atlas Obscura, and even then, many reported facing discrimination and overt threats of violence.

White authorities refused to recognize the massacre for decades; the City of Ocoee, in fact, only issued a proclamation acknowledging the attack in 2018.

“It’s white erasure,” Schwartz tells the Sentinel. “They just wanted it to go away like it never happened.”

Today, reports Monivette Cordeiro in a separate story for the Orlando Sentinel, systemic racism in the Florida city persists, with black residents facing disparities in health care, employment opportunities, housing and other key facets of life. A central avenue in Ocoee bears the name of Confederate Captain Bluford Sims, who seized and sold off Perry’s land following his lynching.

“He basically stole people’s land after they were brutally murdered,” high school student Rain Bellamy, who recently started a petition to rename the road in Perry’s honor, tells the Sentinel. “It’s a Confederate monument in my eyes.”

Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920” is on view at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando, Florida, through February 14, 2021.

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