Ocoee, Florida: Remembering 'the single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history'

NOTE: This thoughtful essay comes to us from Paul Ortiz, a former Institute board member and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida in Gainseville, FL.

90 Years After the Ocoee Election Day Race Riot

By Paul Ortiz

"The tendency to ignore the Negro's contribution to American life and to strip him of his personhood, is as old as the earliest history books and as contemporary as the morning's newspaper. To upset this cultural homicide, the Negro must rise up with an affirmation of his own Olympian manhood. Any movement for the Negro's freedom that overlooks this necessity is only waiting to be buried."

Every year, prominent voices urge us to forget Black History Month. Some claim its reverse racism. Others say that Black History makes white people feel bad. Academics have their own concerns. "Pressure group history of any kind is deplorable," Stanford University Professor Thomas A. Bailey intoned [pdf] in 1968, "especially when significant white men are bumped out to make room for less significant black men in the interests of social harmony....The luckless African-Americans while in slavery were essentially in jail; and we would not write the story of a nation in terms of its prison population."

More recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Cynthia Tucker argued that "[T]he nation of Tiger Woods, Oprah and Barack Obama no longer needs a Black History Month." When educated people advocate the abolition of Black History Month, it is easy to understand why there are students on the verge of graduating from college who do not understand why placing a hangman's noose in a public space is offensive.

Meanwhile, UC-San Diego students mock Black History Month, and argue that the uses of Jim Crow-era racial epithets at their February "Compton Cookout" gala are not racist.

Instead of being used as a tool to promote freedom, history is relentlessly invoked in order to maintain the status quo. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh understood that equating universal health care with "slavery reparations" would hamper reform efforts.

The Texas State Board of Education recently revised its social studies and history curriculum to give white people a more prominent role in high school textbooks -- while the new standards underplay institutional racism in American society. In tandem with its shameful, anti-immigrant policies, the Arizona State Legislature recently passed a bill designed to cripple ethnic studies curriculums.

Racism is still profitable. It is little wonder that big-business backed politicians would attack efforts to educate students about the contributions of people of color to this society.

Employers use racism to justify paying lower wages to minorities, and they also use racism as a divide-and-conquer tool to keep workers at odds with each other. The longstanding success of these tactics plays a major role in this country's low rates of unionization:

In fiscal year 2009, the EEOC [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] received 33,579 charges alleging race-based discrimination [in the workplace] accounting for about 36% percent of the agency's private sector caseload. Historically, race-based charges have been one of the most frequent types of filing with EEOC offices nationwide.

Economic racism comes in many forms. While leafleting in support of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in North Carolina in the late 1990s, I encountered customers in front of grocery stores who brusquely told me that "Mexicans aren't as materialistic as Americans, and don't need as much to live on."

Others informed me that Latinos were like children and just didn't understand how to manage their money. I thought at the time that some foes of FLOC's Mt. Olive Pickle Boycott solaced themselves by creating in their minds a kind of Latino John Henry: a mindless, super-worker who picks those cucumbers and other crops with nary a care about how much they are paid or treated.

The EEOC recently settled a discrimination lawsuit with Big Lots, Inc. that involved a pattern of racial harassment in its distribution center at Rancho Cucamonga, California. "Specifically, the EEOC alleged that an immediate supervisor and co-workers, all Hispanic, made racially derogatory jokes, comments, slurs and epithets, including the use of the words 'n----r' and 'monkey.' Despite learning of the harassment, the company took no steps to prevent or correct it."

Americans are accused of being "ignorant" of history. So who taught these workers to use racial epithets that are rooted in the era of slavery and segregation? I'm sorry, but anyone who claims we live in a post-racial era is a damn fool.

In spite of the labors of scholars such as John Hope Franklin, Howard Zinn, and Rudy Acuña, the vital lessons of anti-racist struggle taught by figures such as Charlotta Bass, Frederick Douglass, and José Marti´ are being lost. Instead, Americans learn a falsified version of history that treats African Americans and Latinos as outsiders or as charitable wards that are placed in "diversity boxes" at the margins of historical textbooks.

One of my former students at UC-Santa Cruz explained: "As a student of African heritage growing up in Santa Cruz, a predominately Caucasian town, the role my ancestors played in the development of the country was never revealed. Slavery was always downplayed in favor of glorifying Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. How was I to regard my heritage with confidence while the environment I was raised in depicted Africans as nothing but slaves saved by a white man? Believe me no teacher ever let me forget that."

During Black History Month, I was asked the following question by a journalist in Florida: "Why is it so important to integrate the history of African Americans into our culture?" I paused to gather my thoughts. What did the reporter mean by "our culture"? Are African Americans always to be treated as outsiders?

I answered by saying that black history does not need to be integrated into US culture; it is at the center of that culture. Indeed, much of the world learns about America through black expressive arts that were forged by struggling African Americans in plantations and sharecrop farms ranging from New Orleans, Louisiana to Memphis, Tennessee.

Vast numbers of tourists visit Virginia plantations or northern seaports, places where African American labor created the wealth that a young merchant class used to launch the American Revolution. John Hancock said of Crispus Attucks, the first man -- a black man -- to die in the revolutionary cause:

"Who taught the British soldier that he might be defeated? Who dared looking into his eyes? I place, therefore, this Crispus Attucks in the foremost rank of the men that dared."

Black history allows us to better analyze events like the Revolution and the Civil War as well as writers such as William Faulkner, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison. Each of these novelists--along with many of our best playwrights--were vitally concerned with questions of race, historical memory, and the future of a multiracial society.

In her essay, "Creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Lynching," Professor Sherrilyn Ifill reminds us that history shapes our everyday relations long after the guns of the past have been silenced.xii This is true not only of lynching but also for the many incidents of violent theft of black property during the Jim Crow Era. Dr. Ifill served as a featured expert in the documentary film "Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings." In this film, Charles Brown Jr., a descendant of a family driven out of Pierce City, Missouri by white mobs in 1901 commented on the ongoing impact this event has in our own time:

"The Cobb property, as well as the property of every other person of color who owned property in Pierce City, was stolen through adverse possession. The government did not protect the African American citizens of Pierce City on that day in 1901 and did not protect the chain of custody....I am upset because the town has chosen not to openly admit wrongdoing by their ancestors. The town has been collecting taxes on our property since 1902. How can Pierce City say they bear no responsibility? I am hurt, confused and outraged. The rest of my family feels the same way I do."xiii

Given the fact that every level of law enforcement, government, media and society in the 20th century was involved in perpetrating debt peonage, unequal schooling, housing segregation, and other forms of officially sanctioned injustice, where on earth do we get the idea that we today live in a "post-racial" society?

Sherilyn Ifill's call for a Truth and Reconciliation commission on these matters is a refreshing stand for human rights and historical accuracy. She believes that truth-telling could help us achieve a profound transformation in our society. "People say you can't change how people think," Ifill says. "That's absurd. What is the job for the 21st century? This is the job. We can't settle for the veneer of unity."xv


In the midst of a national euphoria of forgetting, a town called Ocoee, Florida has taken the bold step of remembering an event in the nation's history that many had tried to cover up. On Election Day, November 2, 1920 African Americans in Ocoee and in other parts of Florida sought to cast their ballots for President.

It was a revolutionary act. Black political participation would have shattered the very foundations of legal segregation in the South. A breakthrough in Florida would have accelerated the modern civil rights movement. Some of the greatest activists of the day were involved in this crusade, including James Weldon Johnson, Mary McCleod Bethune, and Walter White.

State and local officials -- along with the Ku Klux Klan -- understood that white supremacy was in trouble. They responded mercilessly. African Americans who tried to go to the polls were attacked, driven out of the state, and assassinated. In several counties, armed Klansmen surrounded courthouses on Election Day to ensure that black Floridians did not vote. In Ocoee, a well-organized group of paramilitaries killed and drove African Americans out of the town. Houses were torched, and refugees streamed out of western Orange County for days.

The NAACP's Walter White estimated that approximately fifty African Americans had been killed. A University of Florida student who interviewed local residents for a history term paper claimed in 1949 that "About thirty to thirty-five [murdered] is the most common estimate of the old timers." Ocoee remained an all-white town for decades.

Ocoee shared much in common with the thousands of other places in America that author James Lowen refers to as "sundown towns." These were areas where white residents colluded to drive African Americans out through coercion and violence in order to steal their land and resources.

Sundown towns were found in every state of the union and most of them were located outside of the South. Some of these all-white municipalities posted signs reading "'n----r' don't let the sun go down on you here," for generations. A resident of Ocoee wrote in 1969, "As recently as ten years ago a sign admonished the Ocoee visitor as he approached the city limits that Negroes and dogs were unwelcome."

Orange County kept the Election Day Riot under wraps. "The position among the old core of the community was: `Let's just not talk about it. What good will it do?'" remembered Rev. Bryan Stamper, the minister of St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in Ocoee. A critical step forward was taken when area resident--and future mayor -- Lester J. Dabbs pierced the veil of silence by writing his 1969 Stetson University M.A. thesis on the 1920 conflagration. Dabbs's work was titled, "A Report of the Circumstances and Events of the Race Riot on November 2, 1920 in Ocoee, Florida."

In the 1990s, citizens in Ocoee and Orange County organized to acknowledge the riot. These groups, which included the Democracy Forum as well as the West Orange Reconciliation Task Force, did critical work in bringing the massacre into the open, and honoring the victims.

Public discussions of the Election Day riot were fraught with tension as participants disagreed on the proper way to commemorate the event. A catalyst for this debate was the rapidly changing demographics of western Orange County. New generations of African Americans, Hispanics, and others began moving into the area in large numbers in the 1980s. Many of the newcomers genuinely wanted to know what had happened in 1920.


In the fall of 2009, I was invited to deliver the keynote address for the city of Ocoee's 2010 Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. It was an invitation I never expected to receive.

I knew that some people in Florida took issue with my depiction of what had occurred in Ocoee in 1920. I believed that stories of the riot were incomplete. Too many accounts did not mention that it had happened on the day of the Presidential Election.

The violence inflicted on African Americans in Ocoee occurred because they were challenging white rule, not because they were breaking the law. I also argued that accounts of the Election Day Riot that promoted a notion that "both sides suffered equally" missed the point that white supremacy was maintained in Ocoee while African Americans were physically driven out of the town.

William Maxwell, chair of Ocoee's Human Relations Diversity Board (HRDB) issued the formal invitation to me to be his city's MLK keynote speaker. In several conversations and emails with Mr. Maxwell leading up to the January 18 Unity Parade and Celebration, I learned that he was a military veteran, and a man of tremendous integrity who sought to use Martin Luther King Day to create a social space where all would feel welcome. The city chose Sheriff Jerry L. Demings, the first ever African American Sheriff of Orange County to be the parade's Marshal.

This was a remarkable experience, and I am still processing the meaning of it. As director of the University of Florida's Oral History Program, a major part of my job is to help communities such as Ocoee document their histories. I think that Ocoee is more advanced in its approach to American history than many other towns in the United States. The people of Ocoee are demonstrating a willingness to grapple with their town's history -- and not try to cover it up -- which is more than we can say about the great majority of places in the United States that have experienced this type of racial violence.

Dialogues of this nature are difficult but Ocoee has wisely used a public event -- the celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.-- to bring as many people into the conversation as possible. Instead of turning their back on the past, the people of Ocoee are embracing their history in all of its maddening complexity.

I am reminded again of the words of Professor Ifill who discusses the healing process that may take place as part of the process of this kind of dialog:

"Only the people in those communities can determine what tools should be used and what should take place. The whole community needs to identify what should be addressed and confronted. We wait for some outside force to impose some kind of procedure, some kind of law on us. We should not be waiting. Feelings about race come from what happens in a community, not what happens in Washington, D.C. Communities should look within to recognize and confront those feelings."

Here are relevant excerpts of my address as presented to the participants of the 4th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Parade and Celebration in Ocoee. The title of this talk was: "Reclaiming the Dream for Everyone in the 21st Century."

"Mayor Vandergrift, City Commissioners, Members of the Human Relations Diversity Board, Sheriff Demings, Brothers and Sisters. Thank you for this great honor, thank you for inviting me to be with you today. To be asked to speak in Ocoee, Florida on the occasion of your community's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration is deep honor that I will always treasure.

Your city deserves congratulations for creating and sustaining an event that helps bring people from all walks of life together in unity and solidarity. The historical significance of being here, of honoring Dr. King's life almost 90 years after the Ocoee Race Riot cannot be overstated.

As the grandson of Hispanic immigrants, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to people of African descent in the United States. The fact that African Americans were willing to risk their lives in order to gain the right to vote, the fact that they kept the faith in a dream that for centuries excluded them, made this society far more free and democratic than ever before.

All Americans, white, black, Hispanic, Asian or otherwise have been the beneficiaries of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Likewise, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s made it possible for women, working class whites, and new immigrants to go to college and to work in fields that they had been excluded from before.

I have a Ph.D. but I'm not dumb. I well understand that a person such as me, a first-generation college student, doesn't succeed all by himself.

African Americans in Florida and elsewhere shed much blood to win these enhancements of our economic and political rights. The courage of a tenant farmer to stand in line to vote in Ocoee, Florida in 1920 or Selma, Alabama in 1964 makes it possible for me to take my own citizenship rights for granted...

Reclaiming the dream for everyone involves telling the truth about our history. The Election Day Ocoee Race Riot of 1920 was a cataclysmic event in the history of this community. It resulted in the destruction and forced displacement of Ocoee's African American community.

The Ocoee Race Riot also blunted the march of democracy in Central Florida and helped preserve one-party rule in the South for decades to come. We need to understand that what happened here on Election Day in 1920 was not simply an Ocoee story.

All across the South, especially in Florida, African Americans were registering to vote in record numbers in the weeks leading up to Election Day. African Americans had an especially strong argument to make: tens of thousands of them had just served in European trenches or had supported America's efforts in World War I.

The Ocoee Race Riot did not occur in a vacuum. It was part of a larger wave of anti-black race riots that occurred between 1917 and 1923. These riots were aimed against the social progress of black people.

The mass violence was a response to the fact that African Americans were waging effective struggles against segregation and white supremacy. The NAACP was becoming a mass-based organization that was challenging voter restriction laws. Black southerners were also making impressive gains in land ownership.

The media including Hollywood films such as D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, were viciously anti-black and even glorified violence waged against black citizens. Many of the worst race riots were in cities such as St. Louis, Chicago and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hundreds of African Americans were massacred; the loss of property and lives has never been properly accounted for.

Florida's Election Day in 1920 was the single bloodiest day in modern American political history. African Americans throughout Florida who were trying to register as well as to vote were beaten, driven out of their home counties, and assassinated.

What would it have meant on Election Day 1920 if African Americans in Ocoee and elsewhere in Florida had successfully cast their ballots? It would have meant the end of segregation, the end of one-party rule in the South. Just think of it.

Our world today would still be flawed, still far short of living the dream of equal justice for all that Dr. King cherished -- but it would be a much better place. Alas, this is not what happened.

Today, Reclaiming the Dream in the 21st century means reclaiming our history. It means remembering and commemorating the lives lost in the Ocoee Race Riot. You've already taken admirable steps that I find quite breathtaking.

By consistently honoring Dr. King, you honor the best in each of us. Your MLK Day celebrations have also created a crucial space where people can grapple with our shared histories. The University of Florida has much to learn from your efforts.

Mayor Vandergrift, City Commissioners, Members of the Human Relations Diversity Board, I salute you for your work to make this city a place that welcomes all. I would like to humbly suggest that the City of Ocoee, create a public forum on the Ocoee Race Riot for people from all walks of life to share their thoughts, their grief, their hopes, etc.

The point of creating these forums is not to point fingers but to understand. Historical exhibits and monuments do not solve social problems. However, remembrance is the foundation of civilization. What if the Cities of Ocoee and Orlando sponsored a series of initiatives that used the study of the Race Riot as a starting point to explore issues such as race relations, economic empowerment and civic engagement in the 21st century?

Imagine the example that we would set for our forgetful nation if we embraced our history in all of its dimensions and used it to illuminate the way forward. The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida stands ready to assist you in this effort.

Thank You!

Paul Ortiz is author of Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920 (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2006).