Legacy of bloody election day lingers in Florida town
Almost a century after blacks were killed or exiled for trying to vote, Ocoee is a changed place
Growing up in Orlando, Florida, Kelvin Cobaris heard the stories about the nearby town of Ocoee: How a black man attempted to vote in the presidential election of 1920 and the Ku Klux Klan responded with a horrific rampage of fire and violence that led to the exile or death of virtually every African-American who lived there.
When Cobaris ran in the Democratic primary for a state House seat this summer, he found himself in Ocoee looking for votes. The sprawling legislative district that includes Ocoee had elected blacks in the past. Civic groups in town were hospitable and old-timers at the diner were polite. Cobaris, the pastor at Orlando’s Impact Church, even picked up the endorsement of a city commissioner (from a commission that’s never had a black member).
But the past is never too far away here. One day in late August, Cobaris was standing beside one of his opponents, Peter Pham, at an intersection near the town’s library, waving at cars as they passed by. A white man in his 50s or 60s pulled up, rolled down his window and addressed the candidates, one black and one Asian: “I ain’t voting,” he said, “for any y’all n—–s.”
Similar stories were going through Paul Ortiz’s mind when he got a curious phone call a few years ago.
As a professor of African-American history at the University of Florida and a social activist, he’d received hateful calls and letters when he campaigned to have the Confederate flag removed from a county courthouse. So when the voice on the other end of the phone invited him to come to Ocoee to serve as the town’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day speaker, Ortiz’s first instinct was to hang up. The idea seemed so absurd it could only be a prank.
Ocoee? Martin Luther King?
In this town, white supremacy reigned so supreme it didn’t have a single black resident during King’s lifetime.
Times have changed enough in Ocoee that the MLK Day invitation was no joke. Ortiz accepted, was welcomed by the mayor, and came away believing that the town had made significant strides.
Things remain enough the same that Cobaris wasn’t surprised to encounter the drive-by bigot. In a place where white hoods were once commonplace, he said, the racism is just usually better masked.
Once a sundown town, where old-timers recall a sign that warned black workers and visitors to get out by nightfall, Ocoee’s demographics have changed dramatically. The population has grown from 1,000 in 1920 – almost evenly split between whites and blacks – to 40,000 today. It’s now more suburban than rural, with a black homecoming king and queen at Ocoee High School. As of the 2010 census, Ocoee was 17 percent black and 21 percent Latino, and those numbers are increasing.
As voters nationwide prepare to head to the polls Nov. 8, that terrible Election Day in 1920 can seem both near and far. There have been steps forward and backward here, the gains coming not so much because the people, attitudes and institutions of the old Ocoee have disappeared, but because the demographics surrounding them are shifting. And in that regard, this spot of central Florida has much to say about America itself.
Accounts of exactly what happened on Nov. 2, 1920, vary, but the gist, gathered from news accounts, oral histories and academic research, is this: A prosperous African-American named Mose Norman attempted to vote in the presidential election. He was told he hadn’t paid his poll tax and was turned away. (The justice of the peace had “gone fishing” on Election Day to prevent it.) Norman returned later in the day, and Klansmen watching the polls discovered a gun in his car. He was pistol-whipped and told to go home.
A band of whites, many of them members of the KKK, went looking for Norman that evening at the home of another well-known African-American in the community, July Perry. The gang descended on Perry’s house. Shots rang out. Two white men were killed, likely by friendly fire. Perry escaped from the house and hid in a cane field behind it, but his dog followed him, revealing his location. The mob shot Perry, dragged him behind a car, and hanged him from an oak tree in Orlando.
Meanwhile, whites set fire to the entire black Ocoee neighborhood known as the “Northern Quarters,” burning down 25 homes, two churches, and a fraternal lodge. Snipers surrounded the burning houses and shot at families trying to escape, in one instance killing a pregnant woman. A man was castrated. By daybreak, the Northern Quarters had been emptied of all that was living – everyone either dead or fleeing to nearby towns such as Apopka, Winter Garden and Plymouth. Norman, who had not been at Perry’s house, made his way unharmed to New York.
There was violence across the state that election day, with would-be black voters shot in Palmetto, near Tampa, and in Sumatra, in the Panhandle. But it reached its nadir in Ocoee. Though no one knows precisely how many people were killed, estimates range from six to 60, making it one of the bloodiest election days in American history.
In the days that followed, whites descended on the Southern Quarters, the town’s other black neighborhood, demanding that residents sell their property at rock-bottom prices and leave town. The black population was reduced from 495 before Election Day to just one. And once city fathers moved Burly Jones, a former slave, to a nursing home in Orlando, Ocoee was all white. It would stay that way for more than 50 years. Census records don’t show another black resident until the 1970s.
No one was ever tried for the murders or destruction of property. When an FBI team arrived on the scene to investigate in 1920, they were greeted with white silence, reporting that “it is only with great difficulty anyone can be induced to talk about the matter.” A local grand jury concluded that the men who killed Perry and burned down the Northern Quarters “admirably succeeded in the execution of their obligations as loyal American citizens.”
NAACP field secretary Walter White visited Ocoee to investigate the massacre, posing as white. He was able to gather some stories about what happened, and later wrote about it for the NAACP. In the 1930s, the great Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote a partly fictionalized version of what happened in Ocoee. Her story was lost to history until Essence magazine printed it in the 1980s.
Even after the massacre, blacks still had to enter Ocoee, working the citrus fields, cleaning houses, a tense existence at every turn. Calvin Small grew up in nearby Lake County, and recalls that in the 1960s, if he wanted a bite to eat while working in Ocoee, he got his food out of a hole in the back of a diner. “And if you didn’t get no ketchup or salt or pepper, you better not ask for some. If you did, you were going to get cursed out.” Small said all he’s ever asked for in life is to be dealt a fair hand. But around here? “You better not hold your hand out. It might get chopped off.”
Beneath the shade of a concession stand at Ocoee High, home of the Knights (a curious nickname in a town with a Klan history), three African-American fathers watched their sons sweat through practice drills. (The team has its first playoff game on Nov. 11.)
Charles Jenkins, Guysen Bohler and Courtney Young spoke of the joys and pains of fatherhood. They talked about staying up late on weekends, praying for their sons make it home alive, not shot by a punk or a cop. Bohler knows what a lifetime of fear – or survival – looks like. His mother-in-law still refuses to drive through Ocoee. Jenkins knows, too. He had relatives killed in the Rosewood massacre of 1923, an orgy of white violence that left at least six blacks dead and an entire town destroyed. These men worry their sons don’t fully comprehend that kind of backstory. When Trayvon Martin was shot in nearby Sanford, they found it difficult to get their kids to see the larger social context.
But in some ways, ignorance can be bliss. On the football team, these dads agree, the players get along. “It ain’t about black, white or Puerto Rican,” Jenkins said. “It’s about who’s going to make the next play.” Interracial dating isn’t a big deal. “I’ve never seen so many black boys dating white girls,” said Young, a teacher in an adjacent district. “I used to ask my students, ‘Your mama and daddy know who you’re dating?’ ”
Curtis Michelson, who is white, knew nothing of Ocoee’s racial history until he steered a black friend to an internship at a radio station there in the 1990s and the friend – feeling unwelcome – quit after one day.
His friend’s experience caused Michelson, who was working as an organizer in Orlando, to delve into Ocoee’s past. He helped launch a truth and reconciliation effort known as the Democracy Forum. The forum was publicly launched in 1998 at a Borders bookstore, an event intended to bring whites and blacks together for the first time to talk about the terror of 1920 and its lingering impact.
According to a newspaper report at the time, then-Mayor Scott Vandergrift leaned on Borders to cancel the meeting. He didn’t succeed, but the session was tense. Some older white residents blamed Norman for arriving at the polls with a gun in his car and challenged the use of the word “massacre” (preferring “riot,” which connoted violence on both sides). Others said whites from outside the town were responsible, not residents of Ocoee.
Eventually, forum volunteers discovered Perry’s unmarked grave in Orlando’s Greenwood Cemetery, unearthed long-forgotten FBI files and conducted oral histories with survivors and their descendants.
Francina Boykin, a Democracy Forum colleague of Michelson’s, grew up in Apopka hearing stories of the region’s troubled past. Her grandfather had been kidnapped by a carload of Klansmen, driven to an orange grove, stripped naked and whipped 20 times for the “offense” of associating with a black labor organizer. Boykin heard “bits and pieces” about Ocoee as a kid. She knew it was a “no-no” to drive through the town; even her school bus driver avoided it. Conducting oral histories for the Democracy Forum, one story stood out: Mildred Board was just 6 years old in 1920, home alone as flames smoldered in the Northern Quarters. Suddenly, a black man in nightshirt and sleeping cap appeared on her front porch, fleeing the violence. “I’m running,” he said, “like a rabbit in the wind.”
The Democracy Forum pushed the town to formally recognize the events of 1920, a task later completed by another group, the West Orange (County) Reconciliation Task Force, which put up a stone marker last year to honor the victims of the massacre.
Billie Dean, a retired teacher (former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Warren Sapp was one of his students), has served on the Apopka city council for 22 years and is just the second black commissioner in city history. Dean said the racial dynamics of Apopka and Ocoee have played out in peculiar ways. They’re not that different demographically now, but because Ocoee excluded blacks for so long, the town got into the habit of providing city services not often found in areas stunted by racism. For example: Ocoee has a public swimming pool and splash pad. Apopka doesn’t.
Dean never lived in Ocoee, but he represents some descendants of the blacks who fled. He can relate to their stories because something similar happened in his own family. His grandfather owned 8,000 acres of citrus fields in Morriston, Florida, in the early 1920s, earning enough money to buy a new 1922 Ford. One day, word spread that a lynch mob was on its way to the farm to kill the whole family. Dean’s grandfather loaded his wife and children in his new car and drove away. “They left with just the clothes on their back and they never, ever went back to reclaim their land,” Dean said. “They had to start all over again.”
Such stories are all too frequent here, and Ortiz reminds his students they were not isolated incidents but rather part of a concerted effort to appropriate black property and wealth. “By 1920, African-Americans, despite Jim Crow, were beginning to accumulate property, send their kids to high school and maybe college, and gain the rudiments of success,” he said. “This was disturbing the status quo. If black people can be successful, get a degree and start their own business, this destroys the whole premise of Jim Crow and the idea of black inferiority. American history teaches us that whenever African-Americans make advances, there’s backlash from whites. On every occasion.”
On election night in 1920, according to contemporaneous news accounts, whites packed the streets of downtown Orlando to watch the results displayed on a “large screen.” When the violence began in Ocoee, election returns were interrupted by reports of a “riot” and a call for citizens to put down what was portrayed as a black uprising. One of the men who responded was Leo Borgard of nearby Winter Garden, one of the two whites killed outside Perry’s house. Today his headstone at Oakland Cemetery just west of Ocoee memorializes his participation in the KKK. It features a white panel with two hooded horsemen carrying Confederate flags. “HONOR” is written above them, “DUTY” below. To the left and right, is the Klan motto: “Without Fear And Without Reproach.”
Ortiz, author of a book on black political organizing and white terror in Florida titled Emancipation Betrayed, said the devastation in Ocoee was not just the work of out-of-control vigilantes, but rather “the planned destruction of a community to terrorize people into not voting anymore, ever again.” And it must be viewed, he said, in a national context: Many women, including black women, were voting for the first time in 1920. NAACP chapters were growing and registering blacks to vote. Black veterans of World War I were demanding full citizenship on the homefront. “It was a prelude to the modern civil rights movement,” Ortiz said, “and the perfect storm against white supremacy. That’s what makes the backlash on Election Day so violent and bloody. Ocoee was the worst, but there were gun battles all across Florida and in other states.”
If the Ocoee Massacre was as much about seizing black wealth and real estate as it was about suppressing the vote, then the town’s eventual demographic turnaround also has its roots in the land. As Orlando and western Orange County grew in the latter part of the 20th century, housing patterns in the area began to shift and Ocoee transitioned from a rural area dominated by citrus groves to a suburb. Federal home loan programs in the 1980s encouraged new development and first-time home buyers who knew nothing about the town’s past entered the market. Out-of-town investors began buying inexpensive new properties and renting them to whites and blacks alike. A new mall and hospital were built to serve the growing population.
Still, this town has never had a black representative in city government since it was incorporated in 1923. The only ethnic minority to hold office was Angel de la Portilla, a Hispanic planning commission member. He served three months on the city commission on an interim basis, filling a seat vacated by a victorious mayoral candidate in 2015. That same year, George Oliver III nearly became the first African-American to win a commission seat, losing to an incumbent by just 20 votes.
Oliver, a 49-year-old consultant for Deloitte & Touche, moved to Ocoee from Orlando in 2002 when he and his wife and four children sought a larger, affordable home. They knew of Ocoee’s history but found their neighbors welcoming and the city’s demographics surprisingly diverse. Still, when Oliver visited city hall, all the former council members pictured on the wall were white. If local politics was one of the last and strongest reminders of the town’s past, Oliver figured the most meaningful response was to run for office.
“This city has a stigma of racism, inequality and separatism that I feel are not true anymore, so I made a conscious decision to see if I could make a difference,” Oliver said. “And it was like Ocoee coming full circle. You had people in 1920 killed for wanting to vote, and almost 100 years later someone who looks just like them was running for a position in the city council. People who don’t look like me were voting for me. It was almost surreal. There was a lot of passion in my campaign, but it wasn’t about me being the first [black] candidate, it was really about the people of Ocoee showing central Florida we’re not the old Ocoee you think we are.”
Before Oliver, Cobaris said, many blacks in Ocoee had been reluctant to get involved in city politics. But Orange County is another story: The winner of the recent Democratic primary in the state House race, Kamia Brown, is black, as is the outgoing officeholder, Randolph Bracy. In both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the county went for Barack Obama.
At age 78, William E. Maxwell, a retired major in the U.S. Army, still cuts a commanding figure. As a member and former chairman of Ocoee’s Human Relations Diversity Board, he makes an economic development case for acknowledging the past. “Corporate America is not interested in a place that is not going to reflect positively upon its image,” he said. The only way the town can lift itself up from its “dimly lit past,” he believes, is to confront it. “Once it’s addressed and well known, [employers] have the option of making an informed choice and saying, ‘Yeah, we’re aware of that, but look at where they are now.’ ” So Maxwell was the one who invited Ortiz to Ocoee’s MLK Day celebration. He later invited a former Tuskegee Airman to a town festival. He organizes a world culture day to celebrate the 37 nations now represented by Ocoee residents.
Maxwell grew up in Tyler, Alabama, where his grandfather farmed 100 acres. He attended a one-room school and chopped cotton in his grandfather’s fields from the age of 7. The reward was sitting in the front of a mule-drawn wagon on the way to market in Selma, where an ice cream cone awaited. He later enlisted in the Army and served two tours in Vietnam, once as an infantryman and once as a chopper pilot. Returning stateside, he was project manager for the production of the Blackhawk helicopter.
This American patriot knows the pain of discrimination. His aunts marched on Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, in Selma. Eighteen days later, his cousins and sister were driving down the same highway as Viola Liuzzo, the white mother of five who came down from Michigan to participate in the march’s continuation. They saw Liuzzo’s Oldsmobile run off Route 80 by Klansmen and heard gunshots, Maxwell said. Maxwell’s initial application for officer candidate school was thrown in the trash by a senior enlisted man. Returning to Selma years later as a freshly commissioned officer, in full uniform, he stopped for a burger at a gas station. The woman at the counter said she would only serve him if he went around back. “It was the most dehumanizing moment of my life,” he said.
But another serving counter in Ocoee, this one at an Ocoee Starbucks in 2016, holds the promise of a different future. A black woman holds the door open for an Asian couple walking out with their drinks. A white hipster sits curled up in the corner, wearing bright yellow sneakers, one-half of her head shaved close. A white guy with a crewcut spots a Hispanic man in an Army uniform. “Thank you for your service,” he said before turning to the woman behind the register. “I’d like to pay for his order.”
In walks a young man in a Hawaiian shirt, wispy mustache, light brown skin. This is 19-year-old Zach Maxwell. He represents the past, present and future of Ocoee and, perhaps, of this country. He’s here because his father, Bill Maxwell, married a woman from Ocoee. A white woman. A white woman so old-school Ocoee that two roads in town are named after her ancestors. In the Ocoee of Libby Maxwell’s youth in the early 1970s, she said, just talking to a black person would get you called a “n—– lover.”
Libby Maxwell said she was “thrilled and happy and proud” that in a history class in 2008, her son had to put together a scrapbook on the presidential election, “and that scrapbook reflects the election of the first black president of the United States.” Since graduating from high school, this grandson of white citrus barons and black cotton farmers has launched a film production and digital marketing business, specializing in videos for rap and hip-hop artists.
Zach Maxwell said one side of his family used to be in chains; the other side held the key. He appreciates the freedom that comes with being biracial (“I can be what I want”) but acknowledges the challenges. He recalled the time he helped a customer at HoneyBaked Ham over Christmas. He wrapped up the man’s order and told him “Merry Christmas, have a nice day,” only to get a racial epithet in response.
Zach Maxwell said the customer was probably 70. One thing that gives him hope, he said, is knowing people like him will die off. He and his friends, he said, see things differently. “Why should I not like this person because of their skin color? What does that have to do with anything?”
While his parents are voting for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Zach Maxwell is cynical about politics. Though he knows the story of Perry and Norman and the sacrifices made by his relatives who marched in Selma, he said he’s struggling to decide whether to vote. “At this point,” he said, “it’s the lesser of two evils.”
He sees the country fraying in disheartening ways – poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, cops killing and being killed, ideological rants – but he’s optimistic about his own future, determined to build his business and give back. He inherited his creativity, he said, from his mother, his persistence from his father. One black parent, one white, one who grew up riding mule carts across wobbly bridges, the other driving down roads named for grandparents.
This connection between race and family is reminiscent of something
Young said under the concession stand at the Ocoee High football field, that the journey toward arriving at the truth on race is similar to a married couple undergoing counseling. The most painful part is putting all the information on the table and understanding the damage that has been done.
“That’s when the healing takes place,” Young said. “It’s when everybody can acknowledge that they messed up and did wrong. But you take white America. We know the history. We know what you have done. We have been affected by it tremendously. But to say it never happened, to suppress it, to say ‘Get over it,’ that does nothing. That continues the cycle over and over and over.”
Over and over and over. Some fires still burn in Ocoee, and on this Election Day, the smoke lingers over all of us.