On the morning of Nov. 2, 1920, Moses Norman, a Black businessman, attempted to vote in Ocoee. He was turned away by white poll workers who said he had not paid his $1 poll tax, a voter-suppression tactic that was finally outlawed in 1964.
He returned later, but was turned away again.
After the polls closed, a group of armed white men led by Samuel Salisbury (who later served as Orlando's police chief and Ocoee's mayor) went into Ocoee looking for Norman.
They entered the home of Julius "July" Perry, Norman's friend.
Shooting erupted. Houses caught fire. Perry (pictured on page 13) was found hiding in a field, arrested and jailed, and then a mob dragged him from his cell, beat him and hanged him from a tree in front of the home of a judge who had informed Norman and Perry of their voting rights.
Dozens of Black residents were beaten, shot and murdered, and their neighborhoods were burned to the ground. They all fled, leaving behind possessions and abandoning land they owned. That land was taken over by white residents and some was later sold, though the money certainly didn't make it to its rightful owners.
Ocoee had no more Black residents until 1981.
The Orange County Regional History Center opened Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 last month, an exhibition delving into the horrific events of Election Day in Central Florida 100 years ago. The exhibit focuses not only on the massacre and the lynching of July Perry but also other historical and recent incidents of racism, hatred and terror, creating a framework for understanding how such a terrible event could happen. Just as they did for a recent exhibit on Central Florida's Vietnamese community, History Center staff built the Ocoee Massacre exhibit with extensive original research culled from primary sources, firsthand accounts and other documentation.
A local group called the Democracy Forum started researching the Ocoee Massacre in the late 1990s, says History Center curator Pamela Schwartz.
"They learned that individuals of color were still uncomfortable being in, living in, or working at Ocoee," she says, but they also found that a lot of people in Ocoee didn't know that this was part of the history of their community. Twenty years later, they brought the History Center's attention to the upcoming centennial of the event, and they donated their archives and research.
"So then we took that as a springboard and started digging. There were a few land deeds. So we found 160 more. ... We found six or seven more descendant families. We used that to build on, and we've done an incredible amount of deep, original and continuous research over these last three years," she says. "We continue to research and we continue to uncover more and I gather that'll be the case for quite some time to come."
The connections made during exhibit preparation and research are crucial for the History Center, according to Michael Perkins, executive director of the Orange County Regional History Center: "It's about building those relationships. It's about being in the community, meeting people, talking with people, building those relationships so that you not only perhaps end up creating an exhibition, but you're also collecting the oral histories. You're collecting the items from the community to help tell that story. Putting those items into our collection, you may have reason to revisit in five to 10 years," Perkins says. "Our mission is to serve as a gateway to community engagement."
Acknowledgment of social transformation – and how not enough has changed – in the century since the Election Day massacre is presented in the exhibit. That includes the historic Black Lives Matter demonstrations that spread across the nation this summer. As Schwartz explains, the show covers a pre- and a post-Ocoee Central Florida, "from when the first Africans were enslaved and brought to Florida in the 1500s all the way up to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
"[There are] themes of education, voting, labour, property, incarceration. So, these different themes are still relevant today, especially going into the hundred-year mark, and in such a historic election, but also with a lot of other things that are currently happening in society today. There are a lot of different things people can think about when they're visiting."
Staff from the History Center documented this summer's Black Lives Matter protests in Central Florida in real time, and some of these photographs made their way into the exhibit. This is nothing new for the History Center, which is now one of the nation's leading institutions for collecting "current history."
The History Center has received national recognition for its work. An exhibit that corresponded with the first anniversary of the Pulse mass shooting in 2016 was honored with a Special Achievement award by the American Alliance of Museums. Last year, the History Center was one of the 2019 National Medal for Museums and Library Service recipients. The National Medal, the highest honor given to museums and libraries across the nation, was awarded to the History Center for its community service response to the June 2016 Pulse shooting.
"Pulse kind of pushed us to the forefront of [current history documentation]," says Perkins. "Since then, we've really attempted to stay in front of the historical happenings here and do the collecting, gather those stories as events are unfolding so that we can inform ourselves now. But also, historians in the future will greatly appreciate all this work that we're doing now."
State Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, who is a Black man, has been in the vanguard of efforts to bring awareness to the Ocoee Massacre. Indeed, Bracy believes there should financial compensation made to the victims' families.
In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an education bill designed to teach public school students about the Ocoee Massacre of 1920. But until the very day of the centennial (coincidentally, the day this newspaper went to press), he stymied calls to officially recognize the victims.
Florida's chapter of the ACLU and the Orange County NAACP sent a formal request to DeSantis in mid-October asking him to declare Monday, Nov. 2, a day of remembrance for the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre.
Bracy was instrumental to the bipartisan passage of HB 1213, which will ensure that the events of the Ocoee Massacre are not forgotten in public schools. But his mission extends beyond remembrance.
Bracy thinks reparations should be made, and the documentation presented in Yesterday, This Was Home makes a strong case for it. The many deeds of ownership (including Mose Norman's, pictured on page 17) prove that land was owned by many of Ocoee's prosperous Black citizens – land they were driven away from that was later claimed by their "neighbors" and passed down as the basis of generational wealth. This familial foundation has been denied to the descendants of the Ocoee citizens forced out of their homes, like so many other Black families throughout the country.
"Shepherding this bill taught me a lot about the history of the state of Florida when it comes to racial violence," Bracy said in a press conference in Ocoee after the bill passed. "And as I shepherded this bill, I had people reach out from all over the state telling me about different incidences of racial violence."
Sharon Cooley McWhite, a family descendant of July Perry, was recognized at the press conference and said, "This bill validates my great uncle Julius 'July' Perry, one of Ocoee's unsung heroes."
"Please know today, this is just the beginning of the story to be told," she said.
Schwartz points out that "every single Black person in Ocoee who was living there lost something that night, whether they were a renter or a land owner."
She says, "We focus a lot on land right away because it's something that we can actually quantify in terms of loss. You can't quantify generational trauma, emotional or mental trauma, but we do look at the land. We have a land deed map where we've mapped every single Black-owned property, its value at the time, who it was purchased by and sold from and also its value today. So if these Black families still owned these properties, it would be worth well over $9 million today. And that's what they were pushed from."
In addition to the reparations issue, this summer's Black Lives Matter protests figure heavily in the design and intention of the exhibit.
"We originally were looking at the Black Lives Matter movement because it started here with Trayvon Martin in Sanford, so that's part of our local story," says Schwartz. "And that has this terrible relevancy, as it was this intentional targeting of a community. Then while we were designing the exhibit, the murder of George Floyd happens, and we kind of had to step back and say, 'OK, wait. What do we need to be considering here now?,'"
She continues, "There were local protests, and local marches about this, and one of our staff actually went and took this incredible photograph at one of these Black Lives Matter protests this year. In the middle of the crowd this young gentleman is holding up a sign, and that sign says, 'July Perry, Ocoee Massacre Nov. 2-3, 1920.'
"It's incredible. It just, in a very unfortunate way, a poignant way, brought this story sort of full circle for us again in looking at ... while there has been incremental change, we still have a long way to go."
For Perkins, one of the most significant responses to this year's growing demand for diverse representation may be something few guests ever think about.
"A lot of us have boards that aren't necessarily as representative of our community as they should be. We are getting there," says Perkins. "Our board is more representative than it has been, but it is not yet as representative as it should be. That is a very common issue throughout the museum world."
But Perkins notes that the Board of Directors isn't the only issue when addressing diversity within museums.
"A lot of museums' staffs don't really represent the community that they serve," he says. "So it takes that outside-the-box thinking and taking a step back and thinking about what your board should look like and how you can make it more diverse and what you can do with your staff."
Currently, Orange County is in a hiring freeze, so Perkins has his hands tied when it comes to adding new employees to the museum, but he points to volunteers that help build an inclusive museum environment. For some exhibits, such as Yesterday, This Was Home, the History Center has also turned to community focus groups to offer outside perspectives and help ensure the exhibits are as inclusive as possible.
For the Orange County Regional History Center, as with all cultural institutions, the current global events could radically change many aspects of their offerings, though it's still unclear what that change will look like after this current period of pandemic uncertainty has passed.
Cultural institutions have faced unique challenges in the past, but 2020 has proven to be unlike anything previously experienced. The triple narrative of the year with social justice, health, and economic concerns has pushed many museums to the breaking point. Some estimates forecast one out of three U.S. museums permanently closing; meanwhile, those that remain open have to review every aspect of their existence, from their exhibits to the very leadership that guides them.
Perkins, though, assures Orlando Weekly that the History Center's budget is secure for the time being.
"The History Center is a public, private nonprofit. So, we are supported by the Orange County government and by the Historical Society of Central Florida," says Perkins. "The Orange County government supports the institution by paying the bulk of the employees, but not all of them. They pay for the utilities and do all of the operational support for the institution. So, in that way, we're very fortunate."
So for the moment, the Orange County Regional History Center will still be able to keep recording our shared history and telling the stories that need to be told.
"These are heavy stories but are so relevant today to what everybody's experiencing," Schwartz says.
"We're trying to inspire people to keep doing better so we don't have to have exhibits about today that are like this. In 100 years, what are we going to be showing for ourselves and our community?"
Yesterday, This Was Home: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 is currently on display at the History Center until Feb. 14, 2021. Timed tickets are required for the exhibit and pre-registration is strongly encouraged.
Additional reporting by Jessica Bryce Young.