ORLANDO, Fla. — Allen Franks was just 18 when he led five siblings hand-in-hand and carried a sixth, his disabled brother, on his back through swampy woods out of Ocoee, away from a mob of white men firing rifles and burning Black homes 100 years ago on Election Night.
The kids followed the getaway plan their parents made in the wake of Ku Klux Klan marches just weeks earlier in Orlando, Winter Garden and Ocoee as a warning to Blacks thinking of voting in that year’s presidential election, said Gladys Franks Bell, Allen’s daughter.
“They knew trouble was coming,” said Bell, now 81, and living in Plymouth.
That same night, Nov. 2, 1920, J. Carl Devine’s grandparents, John and Roxie Williams, escaped the violence by horse and buggy. John held the reins up front while Roxie, lighter-skinned than her husband, sat in the back, their children clinging to her.
If anyone stopped them, Devine, now 77, said, “in the dark, they’d think she was a white woman” and let them on their way.
“You had to be clever to survive,” he 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.
By the time the flames died out and the shooting stopped, the Black neighborhood was a “gruesome cremation scene,” according to the Orlando Morning Sentinel, which reported two white deaths and an unknown number of Black residents dead or missing.
Today what happened in Central Florida 100 years ago is more frequently called what it was: a massacre instigated by a white mob who wanted to send a message to Black voters.
Historians say the deputized mob and white volunteers burned 25 Black homes, two churches and a fraternal lodge. The total number dead is still unknown.
The lynching of Julius “July” Perry, 50, made him the best-known victim of one of the worst episodes of Election Day violence in the nation’s history. He was a farmer and labor broker who dared register fellow Blacks to vote.
His prosperity, civic activities and fearlessness likely put him in the mob’s crosshairs, said Sha’Ron Cooley McWhite, an Orange County teacher and great-niece to Perry whom she honored during early voting in Orlando by wearing a T-shirt bearing his image to the polls.
“He was lynched not because he had done anything wrong, but because he had done everything right,” she said.
Even Perry’s death certificate attempted to conceal the role of race in his murder, noting the cause was “by being hung not by violence caused by racial disturbance.”
While some facts remain in dispute — lost to time, poor record-keeping or intentional obfuscation — the story of how hundreds of Black families were driven from a west Orange County community is now viewed as so unjust and horrific that it’s become the subject of a formal letter of apology from the city of Ocoee to be offered to descendants and a historic marker planned for the city’s popular park at Starke Lake. This year the Florida Legislature ordered the tragedy to be written into the textbooks of schoolchildren. And the most in-depth exhibit ever curated on the tragedy is on display now at the Orange County Regional History Center.
Bell, who told of her father’s escape from the massacre in a book titled, “Visions Through My Father’s Eyes,” said he was a religious man who lived after the massacre in the Plymouth area in northwest Orange County without malice for anyone, Black or white.
“Regardless of what happened in Ocoee, he told us, ‘Don’t hold hate in your heart, no good comes from it,’ “ she said.
Most research suggests the white attack on the neighborhood was sparked by a Black man’s determination to vote and the angry response of some whites, fearful of losing ground financially and politically to an emancipated people enslaved a half-century earlier.
An exact account of what happened in the community 13 miles west of Orlando may be impossible to tell today because of scarce and contradictory sources and distinctly separate perspectives: one white and one Black, said Claire Strom, a Rollins College history professor who co-authored an examination of the ugly episode published in 2014 in the Florida Historical Quarterly.
Kenneth Thompson, a descendant of a Black Ocoee family that escaped the violence by hiding in a white neighbor’s barn, said tongue-in-cheek that he believes in two versions, too: “A fabricated one and the truth. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is which.”
For the past three years, Pam Schwartz, chief curator of the Orange County Regional History Center, and her staff have probed the tragedy, piecing together land records, tracing genealogies, recording oral histories and culling published accounts. Their work makes up an exhibit called, “Ocoee: Yesterday, This Was Home.”
Schwartz concluded local authorities, all white at the time, tried to hide the truth and managed to do so for decades.
“It’s white erasure,” she said. “They just wanted it to go away like it never happened.”
It all started on Nov. 2, 1920, when Moses Norman, a Black labor broker, attempted to vote at a precinct in what would just five years later become the city of Ocoee. He was turned away by white poll workers. They said he had not paid his $1 poll tax, a voting obstacle that wouldn’t be outlawed until 1964 by the 24th Amendment.
He returned later in a car but was turned away again. There was a gun in his vehicle, according to reports at the time.
After the polls closed, a group of armed white men went into a Black neighborhood to the home of Perry, Norman’s friend, possibly to look for Norman. Writer Zora Neale Hurston later described Norman as “the match to touch off the explosion.”
The deputized mob was led by Samuel T. Salisbury, who studied at West Point and served briefly as Orlando police chief and, later, two terms as Ocoee mayor in the 1950s. Salisbury, who had left a pregnant wife in labor at home, was shot in the arm when he shoved aside a rifle held by Perry’s teen daughter, Coretha, who then was wounded in an exchange of gunfire.
More shooting erupted and, soon, some houses were on fire. Two posse members were shot to death. Also severely wounded, Perry was captured in a sugar cane patch and brought to a cell at the Orange County Jail in downtown Orlando.
According to a coroner’s inquest, a white mob overpowered the jailer, took Perry from custody, brutalized and lynched him, then left his body hanging in public view near the Orlando home of federal Judge John M. Cheney. The judge had advised Perry and Norman on voting rights. He resided near Lake Concord on West Colonial Drive, an area today where Interstate 4 passes over Colonial. Two months earlier, the KKK sent a copy of a letter to Cheney warning that interfering with white supremacy would have “consequences.”
Perry was buried in Orlando’s Greenwood Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Norman fled. He was later documented as living in New York City.
Newspaper ads then summoned the region’s World War I veterans to come to Ocoee to prevent more violence and, in effect, blocked Black residents who survived the terror-filled night from returning to homes they owned. Many fled, never to return.
Those who came back were eventually driven away again by violence that included dynamite thrown into their homes, Schwartz said, citing newspaper accounts.
By late November, a dinner at the San Juan Hotel in downtown Orlando honored the white ex-servicemen who helped law enforcement restore order in Ocoee “after the brief outburst of passion over the killing of two white men.”
Perry’s lynching was shrugged off.
The Orlando Morning Sentinel quoted a jail doctor saying, “Perry was expected to die at any moment anyway.”
Schwartz said the anti-Black terror in the region didn’t stop after election night.
About eight months after Perry’s lynching, his brother-in-law George Betsey, who had moved to Parramore, was taken into custody by Orlando police for alleged bootlegging, but was snatched from two arresting officers by a mob of 15 armed men. A 1921 newspaper account said he was found the next day alive, but chained to a light post, painted from the waist up with red and white stripes, his head tied in a sack.
The account said he had “talked too much about the trouble at Ocoee.”
According to the 1920 U.S. Census, 560 whites and 255 Blacks lived in Ocoee.
Schwartz said History Center research shows 24 Blacks owned land there with 42 properties among them. She said some Black residents had been in the region since the 1880s and had accumulated enviable wealth, including both Perry and Norman, owner of a productive grove.
The combined value of those Black-owned properties today is estimated at $9 million, she said.
“Every Black person living in Ocoee lost something that night,” Schwartz said of the 25 homes, two churches and a fraternal lodge destroyed by mob fires. “What took nearly 40 years to build was lost over a span of just six years in the wake of the massacre.”
Census takers counted two Blacks remaining in Ocoee in 1930 and none from 1940 to 1970. The 1980 census counted 29.
Most Black property owners abandoned or sold their holdings after the massacre, many at high discounts.
Among officials who helped to wrest land from Black owners was Bluford M. Sims, a Confederate veteran considered an Ocoee founder and credited with naming it. He was appointed to oversee the land transactions and had placed an ad in the paper that read, “SPECIAL BARGAINS: Several beautiful little groves belonging to the Negroes that just left Ocoee. Must be sold — See B.M. Sims, Ocoee.”
Lester J. Dabbs Jr., who penned a thesis about the massacre in 1969 to earn a master’s degree in education from Stetson University and also later served as Ocoee mayor, noted that a sign near the city limits once warned “Negroes and dogs” were unwelcome.
“We’d all heard little bits and pieces about Ocoee growing up,” said Francina Boykin, now 70, a Black woman who cofounded the multiracial Democracy Forum and was a member of Apopka Memorial High School’s second integrated graduating class.
“What I thought I knew was bad, very bad,” she said. “But when I learned the actual truth, it was worse, far worse.”
The city today boasts a Diversity Board and invested $45,000 to plan a weeklong “100 Year Remembrance” during the first week of November with hopes of providing descendants with formal letters of apology. City leaders also intend to unveil on Nov. 8 a permanent historical marker at Starke Lake, its most popular gathering place.
Among Blacks, Ocoee has served as a cautionary tale for half a century, said Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings.
Demings, who is Black and also the first person to hold all three roles of Orlando police chief, Orange County sheriff and now, county mayor, said his father moved to Central Florida from Alabama in the 1930s and advised his children to be careful about venturing into Ocoee.
“It had a history that was they didn’t like Blacks,” Demings remembered his father saying. “You could find trouble there.”
But today, the mayor’s twin brother, Terry, lives in Ocoee and owns a business there.
Paul Ortiz, a professor of history at the University of Florida, said the attack on Ocoee’s Blacks occurred midway through a series of assaults on Black communities by whites between 1917 and 1923 aimed at reinforcing white supremacy. The six-year span of terror included “Red Summer,” a phrase coined by civil-rights activist James Weldon Johnson to describe the wave of violence, which killed hundreds of Blacks across the U.S. South, including Tulsa, Elaine, Arkansas, and Rosewood, Florida.
In recent years, discussions in Central Florida of the tragedy have more accurately reflected the role racism played, said Rachel Allen, director of the Peace and Justice Institute at Valencia College, which in 2018 hosted “1920 Ocoee and Beyond: Paths to Truth and Reconciliation.”
“Whites called it a riot because their perception was Blacks were violent, dangerous, needing to be controlled and they started a riot, of course, none of which the historical records show was true,” she said. “The Black perception is it was a massacre, a violent attack on a prospering neighborhood. Whites from Orlando and Winter Garden, many with Klan ties, came with an intent to disrupt and intimidate and frankly terrorize Black leaders who had gained power and standing, and they did just that.”
But she sees new hope for Ocoee now.
“They’ve taken the essential first step, which is admitting the truth,” she said. “From there everything’s possible.”