Exactly 100 years ago, a racial massacre sparked by the right to vote began in Ocoee, a small town 100 miles from Gainesville. In 1920, the Black community in Ocoee was segregated. There was a black church, an African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Masonic lodge, schools and a plethora of small farmers.
By 1920, Ocoee had 1,000 Black residents, and the three most successful Black families were the Perrys, Normans and Hightowers. Moses and Elise Norman did not hide their wealth. To whites, they were “uppity Negroes.” But African Americans in Ocoee were optimistic because of a growing post-war economy and, for the first time, Black women could vote.
Nov. 2, 1920, was Election Day, and white poll workers tried to bar Moses Norman and other African Americans from voting. He had a shotgun in his car and was eventually attacked by a white mob.
Norman went to July Perry’s house to explain what happened. Right after he left, a white mob led by Orlando Police Chief Sam Salisbury attacked Perry’s home. During the confrontation, Perry’s family killed two white men, but eventually Perry was arrested and lynched. The mob used Perry’s body to send a message to deter African Americans from voting.
As the word spreads, white racial massacre protocol requires white men from surrounding towns to join the mob and participate in the massacre. Black residents had to escape for their lives as the white mob burned their town.
After the three days of terror ended, an untold number of African Americans had been murdered. Black families did not return to live in Ocoee until 1978.
This Tuesday is another Election Day, exactly a century since the Ocoee massacre was raging. African Americans can vote and do not have to worry about a white mob coming to their home. But they have to deal with modern voter suppression.
In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act but 48 years later it was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby v. Holder, which effectively allows modern voter suppression by cutting key provisions of the act. Today’s voter suppression may not be violent, but similar to the Jim Crow-era disfranchisement, it is legal. The Voting Rights Act required certain states to gain federal approval before changing their voting laws. But in his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts noted that both the high voter turnout and the increase of black elected officials meant that such pre-clearance was no longer necessary.
The modern voter suppression laws don’t mention race by name, but since that 2013 Supreme Court decision, voting is becoming more difficult and inconvenient for a disproportionate number of Black voters. Between 2012 and 2018 more than 1,600 polling places have closed and, just recently, black voters in Atlanta waited up to 11 hours to vote. A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision made it easier to purge voter rolls, and election officials in Florida are disqualifying Black and Latino mail-in ballots at a higher rate than whites'.
Mass incarceration has also had an impact on Black voters. Felons are not allowed to vote in Florida, but Amendment 4, passed in 2018, gave felons who have completed their sentences back that right. However, the Republican-controlled Legislature quickly passed a law that specified they needed to pay all court fines and fees first, even though many jurisdictions couldn’t even figure out what they owed.
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When you go to the polls on Tuesday, remember the Perrys, Normans and Hightowers. May the spirit of the Black community of Ocoee be with you.
David Canton is director of the African American Studies Program at the University of Florida.