Voting massacre in Ocoee: Black voters fought and died for your right to vote

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By JESSIE GOODING

Contributing writer

African Americans should not only exercise their right to vote, but should be proud to do so.

Here is a little history about the Ocoee Election Day Massacre in Florida where Blacks were threatened if they tried to vote in 1920.

Across the state of Florida, Black organizations had been conducting voter registration drives for a year. At that time, Orange County was dominated by Southern white democrats who were against letting Blacks vote.

In the weeks leading up to the presidential election in 1920, African Americans were registering to vote in record numbers. During this period, the Ku Klux Klan warned the Black community that “not a single negro would be permitted to vote.”

In that same community lived two prosperous Black property owners, Julius (July) Perry and Moses Norman.

Perry was highly regarded in the black community. He was deacon at his church and the local “straw boss” or labor leader. He was much admired as a brave, rational thinker and a civil rights activist. He encouraged young Blacks to be educated, gave advice, and often provided sanctuary to those in need. He, along with Norman, worked with Judge John Chaney, a Republican running for the Florida senate, and together they encouraged African Americans to register to vote. They even paid the poll tax for those who could not afford it. (A poll tax was a fixed sum on every individual. Eligible voters were required to pay a poll tax before they could cast a ballot.)

The day before the election, the Klan marched through major Florida communities, threatening Blacks and warning them not to vote. Judge Chaney was also threatened. Enforcers camped around voting centers and told poll workers to force Blacks to leave.

Election day came, and although some Blacks attempted to vote, they were turned away. Their names had mysteriously disappeared from the eligibility lists.

Norman was not easily deterred after he was also turned away. He rode to Orlando to see Judge Chaney. They made a list of Blacks who were denied their constitutional rights and the poll workers who were involved. They planned a lawsuit against the county.

When Norman returned home, he and a group of Black voters attempted to try to vote once again, but were turned away. Norman returned to the polls for a third time with a shotgun to force his way into the voting center, but a mob took the gun and violence broke out.

A former New Yorker, Colonel Sam Salisbury, was a prominent white man who had become the chief of police in Orlando. He was ordered to find Norman and lynch him. The police chief with a mob of 100 found Norman at Perry’s home, and attempted to enter the residence, but were shot. The mob withdrew but recruited more from neighboring counties.

Perry was injured in the fray, but his wife helped him escape into a cane field, where he was later found and arrested. He was treated at a hospital, but the mob found him, dragged him behind a car, lynched him, riddled his body with bullet holes and hung him on a pole with a sign reading, “This is what happens to Blacks who vote.”

The angry mob then went to the Black community and burned every structure — homes, churches, businesses. Many who tried to flee were shot. Those who did manage to escape hid in the woods and neighboring Black communities of Winter Gardens and Apopka.

Approximately 500 Black residents who had not been part of the massacre were told to leave and sell out. They were rapidly driven out of Ocoee, leaving a nearly white community. African Americans did not return to the area until 61 years later in 1981.

Walter White of the NAACP arrived in Orange County a few days after the riot to investigate. He was traveling undercover as a white Northerner. He discovered that over 30 Blacks had been killed, not only because of voting, but also because whites in the area were jealous of the prosperity of Perry and Norman.

The House Election Committee of Congress was urged to investigate the riot and Black voter suppression with a view to sue under the 14th Amendment, but the committee failed to act.

With this history in mind and with the sacrifice of so many, why won’t you vote?

(Jesse Gooding is a resident of Walterboro.)

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