Ocoee On Fire: The 1920 Election Day Massacre
A quiet Florida citrus town became the scene of a gruesome racial cleansing that purged the entire black population for over 60 years.
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It must have seemed like a lifetime ago to Julius “July” Perry since he first arrived in Ocoee. More than thirty years prior he hopped off that mule-drawn wagon after a multi-day trip from Travelers Rest, South Carolina. The teenager overflowed with enthusiasm for the opportunities post-Reconstruction era Florida would bring.
July and his traveling companions, Mose Norman and Valentine Hightower, walked through the small but bustling downtown of the 1880s village and set their eyes on the pine tree-lined Starke Lake for the first time. They had little but their dreams and a strong work ethic.
Though the shadows of the Confederacy still lingered in Central Florida long into the 1900s, pioneer Ocoee was a model of a post-slavery economically integrated Southern town.
The next three decades went well for the Palmetto State transplants. Very well in fact. With a thriving black middle class beginning to emerge in Ocoee, these three friends were perhaps its most prosperous sons. By then each were owners of multiple large tracts of farmland on the north side of town and had attained wealth and status coveted even by local whites.
To be sure, despite the relative tranquility and economic cooperation, there was still a prevalent undercurrent of racism in Southern society. In the cities and towns across Florida, distinct geographic lines had been drawn between the black and white communities. Having business dealings with the “inferior race” was one thing, but having social and religious cross-over was still many decades away.
Ocoee was founded in the 1850s along the western banks of the pristine Starke Lake, as a camp for laborers working the farms around southern shores of Lake Apopka. A village soon grew up around the camp and became what is now the…