The Ocoee Massacre-A Tragic Day in Florida History

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Description of the History of the Ocoee African Methodist Episcopal Church-Image from Florida Memory

In Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, Paul Ortiz concludes “American history has completely erased the martyrs of 1920” (Oritz 229). Who are these martyrs and why were they forgotten? In this post, we’ll explore the aftermath of what is now known as the Ocoee Massacre by viewing responses from white Florida newspapers found in the Chronicling America collection to remind people of the consequences of racism in the not-so-distant past.

November 2, 1920 marked two important cultural moments; the first Presidential election in which (white) women were able to vote nation-wide and the culmination of the “Florida movement” among African Americans in the state. This voter registration movement began “January 19, 1919-Emancipation Day-“ and sought to mobilize thousands of African American voters. They intended to resist the entrenched Democratic Party’s control of the state as well as challenge “the fundamental elements of racial oppression: poverty wages, debt peonage, failing schools, racial violence, and corrupt law enforcement” (Ortiz 172 & 205). In the months and weeks leading up to the election, white Floridians sought to intimidate African Americans by holding Ku Klux Klan rallies and parades. While The Ocala evening star referred to the Klan’s activities as “incendiary foolishness,” The Daytona daily news reported on Election Day that their “demonstration” proved that the Klan “is in touch with local affairs” and lambasted another local paper for their “efforts” to “belittle the organization.”

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The Daytona daily news-November 2, 1920

On Election Day, African Americans attempted to vote, but faced “a planned system of fraud” throughout the state (Ortiz 220). In Ocoee, voter suppression combined with the accusation that an African American man named Mose Norman returned to the polls with a gun after not being allowed to vote, culminated in a white riot that tore through Ocoee. This riot resulted in the deaths, including at least one lynching, of an unknown number of African Americans, the destruction of all African American homes and social institutions in Ocoee, and an attempt on the part of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to force the U.S. Congress to hold the state of Florida accountable for voter suppression.

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The Daytona daily news-November 3, 1920

On the morning of November 3rd, the stories in both The Ocala evening star and The Daytona daily news frame the stories as the fault of the African American man who wanted to vote. In an article also run in the Times-Union, The Ocala evening star states “fifty carloads of men left Orlando to help preserve order.” The Klan-supporting Daytona paper states that after “two young white men” were shot from the house that Norman found shelter in, a shootout started which then required “the white people to set fire to 18 houses as a manner of protection.”  The next day, The Ocala evening star ran a front page Associated Press article which declared “storing ammunition and attacking the whites does not pay them (African Americans)” and on November 6th it re-ran a piece from the Orlando Reporter-Star which asserted the “doctrine of social equality has no place in the South” and suggests African Americans “Stop loafing, get to work, and keep out of mischief.” These stories all gloss over the fact that “a group of white men chased Norman from the polls” and then decided they should “pay Mose Norman a visit to bring him to his senses” (Ortiz 220-221).

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The Ocala evening star-November 3, 1920

In the months that followed, the events at Ocoee were infrequently discussed in our white Florida papers. Sporadic reports discussed the hearings in Washington D.C. requested by the NAACP in response to the massacre. Paul Oritz argues that the event “drove nearly five hundred African Americans out of Ocoee, and the town became Florida’s newest white homeland,” which may explain the lack of coverage of the issue (Ortiz 223). The dearth in coverage in Florida papers after the massacre demonstrates deeply entrenched racial issues, the effects of which can still be felt today, in early 20th century Florida.

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The Ocala evening star-December 17, 1920

Citations and Additional Resources

Ortiz, Paul. Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.