It is with great sorrow that we, the family of our beloved Clay Rivers, announce his passing. His body was found by authorities late last night in a wooded area in Ocoee, hanging from a tree. Please respect our privacy during this time of deep mourning as we try to understand this unspeakable act.
—the Rivers family
The fear that members of my family would ever have to post the above message or something similar has been a palpable fear I’ve lived with since I was in my early twenties. While I seldom, if ever, had reason to be in Ocoee, I grew up hearing rumors about Ku Klux Klan activity in Lake County. This has been a pervasive fear among black families who have lived in central Florida long enough to know of Ocoee’s reputation as a sundown town. For years, a well-known sign even gave public notice that blacks should not be found in Ocoee after sunset.
On Tuesday, October 12, ghosts of Ocoee’s untold horrors accompanied me on my drive into the town. I hoped, no — prayed, that my desire to attend a seminar produced by the Peace and Justice Institute would lead only to a clearer understanding of the events from almost one hundred years ago and not to my own demise. White friends of mine, transplants from Chicago to Orlando, who live in Ocoee, reacted in what I interpreted as a mix of mock horror and disbelief when I explained why I don’t make visits to their secluded lakefront home late in the day: rumored lynchings that occurred in the area.
With just enough sunlight to separate the sky from the ground, my iPhone’s Maps app plotted a course along two-lane roads that ran deeper into north Ocoee than I anticipated or desired. My drive cut through the shadowy landscape rife with the remains of neglected orange groves, a sprinkling of ramshackle houses, and sprawling, walled subdivisions — the state’s version of twenty-first century gentrification. My destination, the ultramodern Ocoee High School, greeted me as the last of the sun’s tangerine glow bled from the sky.
I overcame my desire to observe the seminar from a far-removed seat near the back of the high school’s cafeteria, and sat in the middle of the room for the sole purpose of being fully engaged in the session. The facilitators encouraged participants to sit with someone they did not know. Two white guys in their early sixties (one from Rhode Island, the other from Arkansas), and a young, black college coed from Miami joined me. We bade one another warm welcomes, shared non-threatening information like hometowns and how long we lived in the area, and settled in.
The co-hosts introduced themselves, led the 120 or so attendees in a small group ice-breaker activity, and reviewed the rules of engagement — a thirteen-point list intended to foster an environment free of shame, blame, or guilt for discussion and reflection.
First item, a 26-minute award-winning documentary about the events of November 2 and 3, 1920, entitled Ocoee: Legacy of the Election Day Massacre, featuring interviews with the grandson of the man who led a lynch mob and the great-grandson of the man who was lynched for exercising his right to vote.
. . .
In 1920 Ocoee, Florida, citrus was the cash crop and owning land to grow that crop was a sign of prosperity … unless you were a black citizen; in which case, you were viewed by the white citizens as a threat. You see, the blacks in Ocoee had banded together, pooled their resources, and a few men like Mose Norman and Julius “July” Perry had become prosperous; more so than their white neighbors.
Across the state, blacks were registering in record numbers to unseat Southern white Democrats. Roughly thirteen miles from Ocoee in Orlando, the county seat for Orange County, Judge John Moses Cheney (a Republican running for Florida Senate) started a voter registration campaign to get more blacks registered. Norman and Perry led the drive to register blacks in Orange County. Their efforts were so successful that according to the 1920 Census, 68% of Ocoee’s black community registered.
On November 2, Election Day, despite warnings from the Klan that no blacks would be allowed to vote in Ocoee, Norman and Perry went to the courthouse to vote. Whites turned them away on their first visit to the polls, and pistol whipped them on their second.
That night, members of Klan showed up at Perry’s home, in search of Norman. A shoot-out ensued in which Perry was shot in the arm and two whites in the were killed. The mob returned with backup. Norman escaped, but Perry was subdued, then dragged behind a car. And thus began the massacre that lasted well into the pre-dawn hours of the next day.
The white mob burned at least twenty-five homes, two churches, as well as the groves of black residents and killed an estimated sixty people attempting to flee the fires. Those not murdered escaped to the nearby towns of Apopka and Winter Garden with only the clothes on their backs. Perry wasn’t seen again until his body appeared hanging from a tree (some sources say light post) outside Judge Cheney’s well-to-do enclave.
No black residents lived in Ocoee for fifty years. Voting records state that the number of black registered voters in Ocoee dropped from 68% to 11%. The people who murdered, burned out, and assumed possession of black property were never brought to trial.
Judge Cheney was never elected to the Florida Senate.
The Ocoee Massacre is still considered the bloodiest day in modern American political history.
. . .
The resulting silence after viewing the documentary was deafening. No one spoke a word until after everyone completed deep-breathing and stretching exercises led by the co-hosts. They also posed questions that gave us the opportunity to voice our reactions to the film.
Between carefully led small group discussions, panel discussions, and an open Q&A session we addressed Florida’s laws which permanently strip felons of the right to vote even after their debt to society has been paid, voter suppression, gerrymandering, racial bias against blacks, and the black community’s distrust of law enforcement.
There’s an old tradition in the south that there are certain things which should not be discussed and by avoiding those subjects, they’ll magically remedy themselves or disappear. Out of sight, out of mind. That’s not the case at all. Unresolved conflicts will only fester and poison the lives of everyone.
These discussions are difficult and painful, but necessary. Descendants of both black and white residents of 1920 Ocoee were present for the seminar. Racism is evil and it cuts both ways. One woman present had family members who committed acts similar to those of the Ocoee whites but in another part of Florida. Her shame, guilt, and sorrow were apparent, even decades after the events. And for blacks, the emotions are unspeakable. But these are the conversations that need to take place in order to achieve — not total understanding — but better understanding of ourselves and others. That’s how we foster healing and growth. Today, the city of Ocoee is one of the most racially diverse of any city in central Florida.
Knowledge is power.
With the knowledge of what transpired ninety-eight years ago and how much the city has changed since then, I headed to my car feeling hopeful about the future. I know now that the specters of Ocoee’s past can be exorcised with open and honest dialog in the light history. I’m hopeful about the future of black Americans and People of Color, in the knowledge that we have not always lived in a state of economic despair. I am inspired that even in the face of envy we thrived until hatred and murder took hold and became the accepted norm for a time. I know that real and lasting change is possible when we recognize the humanity that is inherent in all human beings.
As I left Ocoee High School that night, I felt free of ghosts from the past … even though the needle on my gas tank rested slivers away from E.
Love one another.