Naming Racism: The Ocoee Election Day Massacre

From account of Federal Writers Project in 1936.

One hundred years ago, on Election Day in 1920, White people in Ocoee, Florida reacted to Black people voting with violence that escalated to lynching and burning and destruction. The Ku Klux Klan lynched July Perry, a prosperous and civically active Black man. They burned black churches and homes and murdering uncounted other Black men, women, and children. This was a massacre that is misnamed a “race riot.” 

Words have power. “Race and Violence in Our Cities” was one of the topics for the first presidential “debate.” This Trump-tilted topic combines the dog whistles of “urban” and “crime” and “race.” Calling the Ocoee massacre a “race riot” misnames the KKK massacre of Black people who dared to vote. The 2020 debate topic, one hundred years later, misnames systemic racism in today’s United States in the same way.

White violence drove Black Ocoee residents out of the town in 1920, confiscated their land and citrus groves, and made Ocoee an all-white enclave. In Chicago and Washington DC and cities across the country, the “Red Summer” of 1919meant attacks on Black communities, lynchings, and targeting of Black veterans returned from serving in the U.S. Army in World War I. In 1921, White mobs supported by police in Tulsa destroyed that city’s prosperous “Black Wall Street,” killed somewhere between 75 and 300 people, and left the city’s Black community in ruins. In 1923, White violence burned the entire Black town of Rosewood, Florida

Ocoee and Florida observed the one hundredth anniversary of “the deadliest election day in history” this November. The Orlando Sentinel said

“It’s taken a century, but family tales of the massacre, passed down by survivors through at least three generations, are at last shaping the official narrative of the terror that for decades was obscured or excused by a whitewashing of facts.

“Public officials, as well as the Orlando Sentinel and other accounts, for years referred to the violence as a ‘race riot,’ often implying that the Black community itself caused the violence rather than were the victims of it.”

In the 2020 campaign, Republican race talk and television advertising and social media descends rapidly into racist rhetoric. 

Words have power. So do votes. On the eve of this election, I pray that we will name this racism and vote it down. 

x x x

For more about the Ocoee Massacre, see: 

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