“This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’" Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" 16 April 1963
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” Theodore Parker, 1850, restated by Martin Luther King, Jr., 1956
Last Tuesday, history was made in a once small town with a very dark history. In Ocoee, a now burgeoning suburb of Orlando, the City Commission unanimously voted in favor of a proclamation recognizing an atrocity that had occurred there and vowing it would never happen again.
A Deadly, Destructive Frenzy
The Ocoee Massacre occurred nearly 100 years ago just a couple of miles from the sprawling lakeside municipal services complex where the commission convened. The gleaming structures fronting a nearby lake with its sparkling fountain are a stark contrast to the grim events of nearly a century ago when a moral panic whipped the then small citrus town into a deadly, destructive frenzy.
On Nov. 2, 1920, two African-American men attempted to vote in the presidential election in Ocoee. They had been encouraged by a white Republican appointed federal judge who hoped to make political inroads in a Solid South whose local Democratic hegemony was the public face of the Ku Klux Klan.
Ultimately, the men were prevented from voting by poll officials. They cited Florida’s Jim Crow laws passed to nullify the effects of the 15th Amendment enfranchising former male slaves in the wake of the Civil War. When the men persisted, one of them was pistol whipped before fleeing the polling place.
With rumors swirling around town of an impending riot, one of the men, July Perry, would be taken into custody at his home, transported the 10 miles to Orlando and placed in the county jail. Before the night was over, he would be broken out of his jail cell by a white mob, dragged through the streets behind a car, strung from a tree and used for target practice.
Reports of this lynching place it at various sites within Orlando. One of those sites would have located the lynching within sight of the home of one John Moses Cheney, the judge who had encouraged the victim to defy the Jim Crow system and vote.
Responding to Racist Dog Whistles
But the trouble was just beginning in Ocoee. Perry had been taken custody following an altercation at his home in which both Perry and a white police officer had been shot. As local citizens stood in the Wall Street Plaza in downtown Orlando watching election returns posted on a street front display, word swept through the crowd that a racial riot was occurring in Ocoee and all available “volunteers” were called to assemble in Ocoee to help restore “order.”
Racist dog whistles have long been the norm among white Southerners who wish to retain a patina of socially respectability even as they continue to hold racist values and engage in behaviors designed to preserve white male dominance. That practice continues today as was recently observed in the Florida gubernatorial race.
In the 1920 version of dog whistle speak, “volunteers” essentially meant local Klansmen. A nighttime torch-lit parade of Klansmen had just occurred in the streets of Orlando a couple of weeks before the election to emphasize that no African-American men would vote in that election. It was bad enough that women could no longer be denied the franchise in 1920, following the ratification of the 19th Amendment. References to “order” essentially meant that local white male dominators were not about to give up control without a fight.
Before the night was over, the North Quarters of Ocoee where Perry once lived would be reduced to cinders. Homes, churches and a Masonic Lodge would all be burned to the ground, some with their human occupants still inside. Reports tell of terrified victims fleeing their burning homes only to be shot down in the fields they once tilled. While there are no clear records of casualties, estimates range from 3 to 63 dead that night.
What is clear is that an entire residential neighborhood of Ocoee vanished overnight. While the nearby South Quarters, another African-American neighborhood, was not razed, its residents would quickly flee Ocoee thereafter leaving behind homes and property, major accomplishments for a people just 50 years removed from a time when some of the older residents had themselves been seen as property.
No African-Americans would vote anywhere in Orange County for another 17 years. And for nearly 70 years thereafter Ocoee would be an all-white town. Should any person of color decide to challenge that, the lore of a hanging tree complete with rope and signs warning them not to let the sun go down on them in that town reinforced a segregation born in atrocity.
“Forget it as soon as possible…”
Human Shadow, both individual and collective, has a way of avoiding conscious confrontation. It is a very human response to the cognitive dissonance that awareness of wrongdoing produces to repress it from active memory. In Orange County the repression of the Ocoee massacre and Perry lynching began almost immediately.
The day after the worst election day violence in American history, the embers of former homes, churches and two Masonic Lodges in Ocoee were still flickering in the North Quarters. Soil had just begun to settle on the grave of July Perry in Orlando’s historical Greenwood Cemetery. Ironically, that grave would be located just yards away from the eventual gravesite of one of the leaders of the massacre, Colonel Sam Salisbury.
The November 3, 1920 editorial of the Orlando Evening Star called the incidents in Ocoee and downtown Orlando “deplorable.” It advised its readers that “Now that the disturbance in the western section of the county has come to an end, all citizens should forget it as soon as possible.” Two days later the paper would attempt to rationalize that advice with the explanation that “any further investigation would stir up memories better left alone and would only leave an everlasting feeling against them [Negroes] in all Orange.” The use of self-absolving constructs are common in denial.
Clearly the people of Orange County took the advice of the newspaper for many years. Attempts to remember – and thus redeem – the events of 1920 did not even rise to consciousness on any kind of an organized level until the late 1980s. Calling themselves the Democracy Forum, a group of social justice advocates, largely members of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, quickly drew other local activists excited to finally begin unearthing those two nights of horror in Orange County and their aftermath.
With the help of the cemetery sexton, the Forum located the grave of July Perry in Greenwood and paid to have a marble commemorative stone placed on his final resting place. They began to gather a wealth of stories, photos and documentary evidence from newspaper crypts and the files of the NAACP in Jacksonville. They discovered a short story by Zora Neal Hurston about the Ocoee massacre which inadvertently affirmed the local white party line which described the events as a “riot” requiring law enforcement to put it down.
When the Democracy Forum had accrued enough evidence to feel confidence in finally telling its story, it scheduled a public forum. The widely publicized event was held at a Border’s Books set amidst a gleaming modern shopping district complete with mall and theaters within a couple of miles of the killing fields of Ocoee.
By all accounts, it was a tense evening.
“It wasn’t us…Let’s just move on…”
Descendants of the participants in the massacre challenged the use of the term massacre (“Any incident becomes a massacre when more than six people are killed” replied the sociologist from nearby Valencia College). They challenged the death toll which ranges from 3 to 63 depending upon which of the documentary sources one uses, none of which are official in modern terms. The local coroner’s office cannot verify any number higher than three. No doubt that is because many of the dead were burned to death in their homes or buried by their murderers.
But, the more salient responses of the local community to the forum took two directions.
One, it wasn’t us. Many would argue that Klansmen came from miles around to participate in the slaughter of African-Americans, many of whose financial prosperity had begun to challenge their white farming counterparts in the citrus belt of Florida. It was a bit of an ironic twist on the “outside agitators” dismissal of the legitimacy of civil rights actions during the 1960s.
Souvenir postcard from Massacre, found at http://www.caitlinbennettart.com/greetings-from-america
Of course, there was a network of Klansmen, many of whom were local political officials, in Central Florida’s citrus belt. The descendants of plantation owners who had migrated to Florida after the Civil War, it’s hardly surprising that their fear and loathing of the black labor source they saw as both less than fully human and yet essential to their profit-making could have played a role in these events.
But the second direction of resistance to the re-membering of the Ocoee Massacre took a more familiar turn: Why stir all this up now? Let’s just move on. Let bygones be bygones.
This is the stuff of repression and denial. It’s also the stuff of Shadow, dark memories repressed from consciousness which take a life of their own in unconscious psychic sewers, just waiting for a chance to come to life in the form of projections onto vulnerable targets.
All of this occurred in an Orange County which in 1998 was in the midst of yet another major demographic shift, much like the context of the original events. With local identity up in the air, it’s little wonder this first attempt to bring the events of that awful night to consciousness would prove unsuccessful.
Whatever else it was, Orange County was simply not ready to deal with its history that night.
[continued, Part II]
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston 2018