TALLAHASSEE — The Ocoee Election Day Massacre of 1920 was not a random event.
When a crowd of angry white people lynched Julius “July” Perry, strung him up and chased black residents from their homes, it was the culmination of weeks of racist terrorism. At a rally in nearby Orlando just days before, members of the Ku Klux Klan warned black people about what would happen if they voted. When a black person, Moses Norman of Ocoee, tried to exercise his constitutional rights, his community was slaughtered for it.
With a stroke of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pen, the events of Nov. 2, 1920 now must be taught in Florida schools. Although it’s one of the most horrific days in the history of the state — an untold number of black people were killed, and even more displaced — that act of recognition was met with joy and relief by descendants of the victims.
“The acknowledgment that it was wrong, that’s part of the healing,” said Sharon McWhite of Orlando, a descendant of Perry’s. “It’s long overdue.”
The bill, House Bill 1213, which was a combined measure that mandated teaching about both Ocoee and anti-Semitism — the latter as a part of mandatory Holocaust curriculum, sailed through the Legislature. Not a single lawmaker voted against it.
But the original sponsor of the Ocoee portion, Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, said he wants to go further. Not only should Floridians learn about the Ocoee Election Day Massacre, they should compensate the descendants of its victims.
“I think a debt is owed,” Bracy said. “It’s kind of simple to me. How does the government support terrorism and land theft and there not be any repair for that?”
Bracy initially included reparations in his bill, but he took it out after getting signals from top Republicans that the measure would not pass with the compensation section, he said.
There is evidence the local government abetted in what amounted to the theft of likely hundreds of acres of black-owned land a century ago, said Pamela Schwartz, the chief curator at the Orange County Regional History Center. For example, Perry’s widow and daughter didn’t get to decide what happened to their family’s land after the lynching. Instead, the parcel was handed over to a prominent white man in town and Perry’s family was compensated well below the market rate, Schwartz said.
In a broader sense, it’s without question that the state failed to provide for the safety of black families in Ocoee. The summer after the Election Day massacre, white people threw dynamite into black homes in another instance of racist terrorism, Schwartz noted. No one was ever charged in the Election Day massacre.
The white supremacist tactics were effective. In 1920, the U.S. census showed there were 255 black people living in Ocoee, 18 of whom owned land, Schwartz said, noting these are likely underestimations. By 1930 the census showed that all but two black people had left Ocoee. The couple that remained were household servants, not landowners. It wasn’t until the 1970s that records show a black person owned property in Ocoee again, Schwartz noted.
“Florida failed,” said Paul Ortiz, a professor of history at the University of Florida. “Not only failed, but my assessment is willfully failed.”
Stephen Nunn of Tampa, July Perry’s great-grandson, said the legislation signed this week marked just the first step toward justice.
“We’re long overdue for restitution, or reparations, if you will, for descendants of Ocoee who suffered tragic atrocities,” Nunn said.
There’s precedent for the Florida Legislature granting reparations to the families victims of racist massacres. Most famously, in 1994, lawmakers voted to give descendants of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre scholarships, which cover state college tuition.
McWhite, whose grandfather was Perry’s brother, said she didn’t need any money from the state. Instead, she’d like to see any reparations money go toward enhancing the curriculum around Ocoee.
In crafting a lesson plan around Ocoee, the state has a challenge on its hands. Because of the immediate, intentional obfuscation of local officials, historians are still trying to figure out precisely what happened.
Accounts cannot even agree on the number of dead. Some estimates range into the hundreds. Others, which are more grounded in documented evidence, say the toll was likely fewer than 10, Schwartz said. (Two white men were also killed amid the chaos; accounts differ as to how.)
“The bill needed to go further. It needed to talk about equipping teachers to have that conversation with their students,” Schwartz said. “If you Google ‘Ocoee,’ you find literally 100 different versions of this story. Most of them are untrue.”
Bracy said he’s confident the state can come up with a curriculum that will provide an accurate picture to students.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, a co-sponsor of the measure who kept Bracy’s bill alive by attaching it to his Holocaust education bill, said the law proves the Legislature cares about correcting historical wrongs. Although it passed in March, Fine said it’s particularly resonant today, at a time when many Americans are keenly interested in the history of white supremacy.
“This bill couldn’t be getting signed into law at a better time,” Fine said. “It showed that the Florida Legislature was focused on historic racism before it exploded into the news a few weeks ago. That’s something Democrats and Republicans should be proud of.”