‘We will vote, by God!' How the Ocoee Massacre sparked local legislation nearly 100 years later

Ocoee Massacre Bill to be signed into law on June 24

OCOEE, Fla. – As many Americans reflect upon the nation’s past and hope to enact change for a better future, pushing against continued systemic inequalities, Florida finds itself upon the near 100-year mark of an event that would shape the experience for many Black Americans in the state for years to come.

In just a few months, Flordia will mark 100 years since 50 Black men were shot and killed in Ocoee as they sought to exercise their right to vote, a tragic piece of history known as the Ocoee Massacre.

According to the Zinn Education Project, on Nov. 1, 1920, just a day before polls would open to all citizens of Ocoee, robed members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded down the streets of the sleepy citrus town, chanting “not a single Negro will be permitted to vote,” threatening any African American who did would face “dire consequences.”

The next day, some Black Floridians did try to vote in the Orange County elections, while white poll-workers were given instructions to try to deflect the votes of those who did.

“One-by-one would-be Black voters were turned away either by threats of violence or by poll workers who found their names ‘mysteriously’ absent from the voter registration rolls,” ZEP reported. “Pollsters instructed them to get documentation from notary public R. C. Biegelow to verify that they were indeed registered to vote. Conveniently, however, Biegelow was unable to be located because he was out on a fishing trip that day.”

With little support and few other options, many returned to their homes without having cast their ballots, but not all were so easily deterred by the scare tactics.

A man named Mose Norman was determined not to return home without his vote being counted, so he sought counsel from a local judge after being turned away from his Ocoee precinct.

“The attorney instructed him to write down the names of any African-Americans who were not permitted to vote and also the names of the poll workers who had denied their Constitutional right,” the ZEP reported. “Cheney said a lawsuit against the County could be brought to contest this violation.”

According to the ZEP, Norman, along with other Black Americans who were turned away, returned to the Ocoee polls and after being turned away again by white poll attendants, they proclaimed “We will vote, by God!”

The Orange County Regional History Center archives show that the same night Norman attempted to vote, members of the KKK showed up at the home of July Perry in an attempt to find Norman, and a shooting ensued. Perry was captured by the KKK, and according to the History Center, and was lynched.

Sharon McWhite is Perry’s great niece and she said her family is still fighting for justice.

“Not only did he lose his life, but we as family members have suffered in silence for a long time,” McWhite said. “The fight is not over, the fight has just begun, black lives matter.”

While some historic accounts estimate that at least 50 Black Americans were killed on Nov. 2, the History Center reported that “an unknown number of African American citizens were murdered, and their homes and community were burned to the ground. Most of the black population of Ocoee fled, never to return.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee) talked about a bill he drafted that the governor has signed into law that would “spread the story of the Ocoee Massacre into museum exhibits and classrooms and will inscribe victims’ names into school buildings and state parks,” according to a news release. “Now more than ever it is paramount our citizenry is educated about the origins of racial conflict and its manifestations in policies that are anti-black, anti-democratic, and anti-human.”

Bracy addressed the bill signing at a press conference at 1:30 Wednesday afternoon, just a few months before Florida enters another election season.

“It’ll be taught in schools now, it’ll be memorialized where there will be facilities named after the victims of the Ocoee Massacre,” Bracy said.

“This is the time for people to be engaged more than ever.”

Bracy told News 6 this is just the first step in recognizing more black history across Florida.

In 2018, the city of Ocoee, acknowledged the events and signed a proclamation ensuring the acts will never happen again.

More information on the bill can be found on the Florida Senate website or by clicking on this link.

About the Authors: