South of the South
1n 1920, the entire population of the State of Florida was estimated at less than 1 million. Hanging off the lower 48 like an appendage in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida has often been described as “south of the South”. Things went on here—often of a worse nature than in other sectors of the known South.
Recently, Florida has been assigned over 300 documented lynchings by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). To the shock of many, Orange County has been credited with the most lynchings of any county in the State.
Put in a national context, Orange County ranks 7th highest in sheer number of racial terror lynchings in the South over a 73 year period (1877-1950). This ranking is largely due to one single event: the loss of life from the Ocoee Voting Day Massacre of 1920 for which it is estimated that between six to over thirty blacks were shot, burned and killed. The 1920 Ocoee Voting Day Massacre has been called one of the bloodiest single days in American political history.
On Election Day, November 2, 1920 two black men tried to vote. Because they were blocked from paying their poll tax, their right to vote was challenged, resulting in escalated tensions and a series of brutal murders, including the lynching of July Perry. The town was burned.
Over the next year, the entire black community of Ocoee was driven out, forced to abandon or sell land and homes. No blacks lived in Ocoee from 1920 to 1981. Today there is no visible marker acknowledging this occurrence anywhere in Central Florida. That is about to change.
On June 21, 2019, just shy of the 100th year anniversary of this racial terror lynching, Central Floridians will unveil an EJI marker to honor the life of July Perry. It will be placed in the heart of downtown Orlando in Heritage Square which fronts our Orange County Regional History Center.
Why revisit the horrors of the past? How can true progress be made? A first step might be to sit down at the base of the July Perry marker in the company of a 6 year old child, or a 14 year old teen, or a 23 year old young adult and have a conversation. Take the time to explain why and how this incident occurred , and continues to manifest itself in new forms today. (Access to voting and elections in Florida can still be challenging). What would you say to a young person to instill and inspire hope? What tools would you employ to break the cycle of hate? What perceptions have already taken hold at this early age? Are we too late to effect change? As generational storytellers, have we faced our shadow? There is still meaningful work for each of us to do. It can change lives.
Charley Williams is a Past President of the League of Women Voters of Orange County and a volunteer with the Truth and Justice Project of Orange County. He lives in Winter Park.