History Center staff are preparing a major exhibition that will open just weeks before the 2020 general election and will look back a century to Election Day 1920 in Orange County, telling the story of the largest incident of voting-day violence in United States history, along with its aftermath.
This exhibition —Yesterday This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 — is unlike any other developed by the History Center. If you Google the Ocoee Massacre, you’ll find various accounts, records and oral histories of what took place Nov. 2 and 3, 1920, and they are nearly always inconsistent and conflicting. These reports include newspaper accounts of the Ku Klux Klan march through Downtown Orlando on Oct. 30, 1920, a coroner’s inquest about what happened in the jail in Orlando and July Perry’s burial records for Greenwood Cemetery.
In an effort to uncover the truth and remember the victims of this tragedy, History Center staff have been diligently working for nearly three years to spin the threads that will ultimately become the fabric of the exhibition. From reading every account and news article published to poring over land deeds and maps and seeking out descendants of survivors and those involved, we know this is important work to make this time in our history more visible and understandable for you — our members, visitors and community. We feel this history needs to be heard. If we remove all hearsay, conjecture and opposing narratives from the many accounts of what happened, we are left with only a very brief overview.
On the eve of the 1920 presidential election, racial tensions in the South were at an all-time high. Segregation was pervasive, and, with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan throughout Florida, many Black residents were being marginalized, terrorized and oppressed. Members of the Klan and other white citizens made many attempts to intimidate Central Florida’s Black population and discourage or outright prevent them from casting their legal votes.
On Nov. 2, 1920, Moses Norman, a Black man, attempted to vote in his hometown of Ocoee. He was denied this right and was ultimately met with violence.
That evening, a group of armed white men, at least some of whom were police officers, surrounded the home of July Perry, a friend of Moses Norman. Perry and the men exchanged words, and shots were fired. His wife and children escaped, but Perry was captured and lynched. His body was left hanging in Orlando as a reminder of the consequences of being what whites perceived as an insubordinate Black man.
That night, a white mob burned part of the Black sections of Ocoee to the ground, and, by the next day, at least two white men and an unknown number of Black residents had been killed. Over the next six to seven years, surviving residents would sell their land and flee the area. No Black individuals attempted to move back to Ocoee until at least the mid-1970s.
Beyond the scope of Ocoee, this exhibit will begin 450 years ago when the first enslaved Africans were brought to Florida, following themes up through today with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it will help us engage in conversations for moving forward. Loaned documents, artifacts and images from institutions such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will help fill in the gaps and tell a fuller history of racial oppression in Central Florida and its relationship to the national experience.
Yesterday This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 will open on Oct. 3, 2020. Special public programming and events will accompany the exhibition throughout its run. For more information, be sure to visit our website, thehistorycenter.org.
Do you have artifacts, photographs or stories (even if passed through the generations) relating to this event or to other inci- dents of racial violence in Central Florida? Please contact our collections manager, Whitney Broadaway, at email@example.com or 407-836-8587.
Pam Schwartz is the chief curator and Catherine Duffy is the curator of exhibitions at the Orange County Regional History Center.