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 Moses 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.

 

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Exploring African American History in Florida using Digitized Newspapers

African American History Month, celebrated in the United States during the month of February since 1976, is a time to reflect on the role African Americans play in our nation’s history and culture. Often this takes the form of celebrating the accomplishments of notable individuals, especially those who broke racial barriers. Here at the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper project, we want to take a moment to explore the everyday lives of African Americans living in Ocala and the surrounding area during the early part of the 20th century by calling attention to the paper’s “Colored People’s Department” column.

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One of the many newspapers in our digital collection is the Ocala Evening Star. Published from 1895-1943 before joining with the Ocala Banner to form the Ocala Star-Banner, it continues to provide news for Marion County today. Like many white-owned papers during the early 20th century, racial issues are discussed in a manner that will shock and appall most people today. However, from January 28, 1902 to February 24, 1908 the paper regularly dedicated space for local African American news.

Known as the “Colored Folks Column” from 1902 to 1903 and the “Colored People’s Department” from 1904 until it ended, this section of the Ocala Evening Star offers a snapshot of African American life in Marion County. Topics include notices about illness and recovery, advertisements for welcoming stores and restaurants, marriage celebrations, deaths, and the availability of lodging and purchasable property. Of interest to historians and genealogists alike is the plethora of names and details about individuals living in the community as well as the businesses they patronized.

In addition to the above mentioned topics, religion also features prominently in these columns. This is likely due to the fact that its main editor was Rev. J.E.A. Keeler and also included frequent contributions from Rev. John H. Dickerson who served as pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church. In fact, it is rare to find a column that doesn’t include mention of a church service, camp meeting, or building project. Beyond advertising various events occurring at historically Black churches, occasional morality lessons also appear. These include a variety of topics such as admonishing drunkenness and encouragement to contribute to the community. It is in these moments that the editorial voice of the authors shines through.

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Ocala Evening Star December 8, 1903

The “Colored People’s Department” column vanishes from the publication quite suddenly. The last column is an editorial piece by Rev. John H. Dickerson critiquing the manner in which Florida primaries were run at the time. Was his piece too contentious for the newspaper? Were there unseen issues between the editors and the authors of this column? Or did the writers suddenly become overburdened with other commitments? Ultimately, we don’t know. But while less remarkable than the events typically discussed during African American History Month, the African American column in the Ocala Evening Star provides insight into the day to day lives of African Americans living in the Jim Crow South.

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Ocala Evening Star October 4, 1902
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Ocala Evening Star January 25, 1908