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PART I: THE OCOEE MASSACRE

The "Ocoee Massacre", was an incident of race-related violence directed at the black community in Ocoee, Florida on 2 November 1920. I'll briefly summarize the incident here. Norman Mose, a prominent entrepreneur, landowner, farmer, and political and labor organizer, attempted to vote but was turned away for not paying the poll tax, which he definitely did pay, despite many modern descriptions portraying Norman as refusing to pay the tax. In fact, Norman was a part of an effort to enroll the local black community for the upcoming presidential election, and paid the poll taxes of several members of the community. Norman was not the only black person to be turned away from the polls. Norman left to consult a judge, John Moses Cheney who had been a part of the effort to enroll blacks to vote. Cheney advised Norman to gather all the black people who were denied and try again, and if they were denied the second time, he was to take down the names of everyone denied the right to vote, as well as the names of all the white perpetrators preventing them from exercising their right to vote, and bring the list to the judge.

Exactly what happened is not clear. Either Norman or a man named Julius "July" Perry (almost certainly Norman), also a political and labor organizer like Norman, brought a shotgun to the polling place. Some accounts say shots were fired, but they are unclear as to who shot at whom, or who shot first. Other accounts say Norman or Perry was disarmed before ever getting a shot off.

Either way, warrants of arrest were sought for Norman and Perry and a posse, legally deputized according to some accounts, unlawful to others, was dispatched to the two's houses. From what I gather, Norman hightailed it out of town, but at Perry's house, a shootout broke out. According to the man who led the posse, Sam Salisbury, former police chief of Orlando PD and card-carrying member of the KKK, in an interview to a graduate student almost 50 years after the fact, he claimed the house was filled with approximately 37 armed people. Papers at the time claim 7-8 people were in the house, but this could be due to a possibly coerced confession. Other accounts claim that only Perry, his wife, and their daughter were in the house. In the shootout, 2 white men, veterans, were killed and 5 members of the white posse were wounded. Some witnesses claim that the men killed and wounded were due to the wayward fire of their fellow posse members.

While this shootout went on, the posse sent to the nearby towns for reinforcements. In response, hundreds of armed and angry whites, many of whom had ties with the KKK, set upon the area. There was a lull in the shootout at Perry's house, which allowed the occupants to escape; however, Perry was shortly thereafter caught, and gravely wounded in the interaction. Perry was taken to a hospital for emergency surgery while the mob of whites ravaged the black community of Ocoee, killing approximately 30-35, and burning dozens of homes, the only two black churches in town, and the only black meeting lodge. After Perry's emergency surgery, he was whisked away to the local jail where he was expected to die of his wounds. Late that night, another mob gathered outside the jail, overpowered the lone jailor, and lynched Perry.

In the days and months following the incident, the remaining blacks in Ocoee were run out of town and given a pittance for the property they were forced to abandon. The only coroner's inquest's ever held were for the white men killed in the incident, and no one was ever brought to justice for any of the crimes that day.

PART II: THE RESEARCH

Reliability of information with this story is elusive. After the massacre, there was a concerted effort to forget the incident ever occurred. While the papers and witnesses record that there was some sort of federal investigation into the massacre (though it was reportedly regarding election fraud, not the killings or arson), there appears to be no record of it. Similarly, neither the state nor the son of the State Attorney at the time, have any record of the SA's investigation into the incident.

Likewise, the tellings of the story today vary a little from piece to piece and with that of the newspapers of the time, and the newspapers of the time also disagree with each other. For example, this Daytona Daily News article from the day after the massacre claims that Mose Norman was the man who was turned away from voting and later brought a shotgun to try and enforce his right to vote, but he was disarmed and fled:

3NOV1920 Daytona Daily News page 1

Whereas, this Orlando Sentinel article from two days after the massacre says that July Perry was the one who carried the shotgun to the polls:

4NOV1920 Orlando Sentinel page 1

A third paper, appearing to have more of an air of respectability, the 24 December 1920 edition of the Ocala Banner claims that Henry F. White, a representative of the NAACP, went to Ocoee and investigated the incident, finding that Mose Norman was the one who was denied the right to vote, but no mention is made of a shotgun:

24DEC1920 Ocala Banner page 10

Several modern popular accounts omit the shotgun account, presumably to paint an EVEN more sympathetic victim (wholly unnecessary under the circumstances). Examples can be found on the Equal Justice Initiative's page about the massacre, BlackPast.org, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Orlando Weekly and the Smithsonian Magazine's story about an upcoming exhibit on the massacre (at the Orange County Regional History Center not the Smithsonian), which gets Mose's name wrong. However, there are modern accounts such as, a Florida History Blog post, Ocoee On Fire: The 1920 Election Day Massacre, a black Florida history blogsite, Dunn History, blog post, titled rather succinctly, Maligned In Black and White Southern Newspapers Played a Major Role In Racial Violence. Do They Owe Their Communities an Apology?, and *The Ocoee Massacre- A Tragic Day in Florida History, that do recount Mose Norman with the firearm, leading to a confrontation. Another modern approach, taken by the University of Central Florida is to ambiguously say, "When Norman returned to Ocoee with Cheney’s message, gunshots were fired. Norman escaped."

Also, Florida's succinctly named Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) produced a report, Ocoee Election Day Violence—November 1920, about the massacre. I am skeptical of this report for a few reasons. First, most importantly, in the part that details the story, there are no footnotes or sources explaining the basis of the claim. At the start of the report, they list general types of sources used, such as "academic papers and books, maps, oral histories recorded by the Works Progress Administration, congressional testimony..."; however, the issue is that this seemingly academic work makes a lot of claims, but never says the grounding for those claims. This makes it impossible for us to investigate these sources for bias or memory errors, which I imagine would be substantial, given this report was published 100 years after the incident. Also, there are footnote sources in other areas of the document so I know they knew how to cite their sources.

Another huge red flag is the paltry mention of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the report. The only mentions within the body of the report are of two marches that went on in Jacksonville and Orlando in the weeks preceding the election; however, it does not mention that the Klan walked through the streets of the black communities in Ocoee with a megaphone warning blacks not to vote, and threatening consequences if they attempted to exercise their constitutional rights the night before the election. Further, the report does mention Sam Salisbury, the former chief of Orlando PD who led the posse that got into the shootout at July Perry's house, Clyde Pounds, the Orange County deputy who allegedly deputized the posse that attempted to arrest Perry, and Frank Gordon, the Orange County sheriff who took over the larger operation of restoring order after the incident; however, it fails to ever connect them, or any individual or law enforcement agency with the KKK. The only way to know the KKK had anything to do it was to read their ambiguous newspaper source list. Lastly, the section addressing the financial fallout of the massacre to the victims starts out by saying, "It is difficult to discern if Ocoee’s African-American residents were compensated, or compensated at a fair market value, for their property." Then it goes on to describe how Perry's family never received any compensation for the property they lost, which would have been substantial, given Perry's place in the community. The section ends by stating:

Property deed records show that other African Americans transferred the ownership of their property in the months after Election Day. However, it is difficult to determine to what extent they were fairly compensated because property records do not necessarily include assessed value.

The fact that they are admitting that they have the sale records, which obviously contain sale prices, but they don't release any of that data, "because property records do not necessarily include assessed value" is utterly absurd. First of all, the fact that they said they do not "necessarily" list the assessed value means that at least some of the records DO include assessed value. How many of these were at fair market price? Further, we could judge looking at other nearby sales of whites' properties to see if the prices were justified. All in all, this report appears to be an attempt to limit liability and limit the appearance, however genuine, of the substantial numbers of klansmen within the ranks of the mob and the local law enforcement. Because of this, it is hard to trust this report; however, it gives two different scenarios (while somehow giving me the impression they had more variations they withheld) regarding the shotgun, both of them being that the shotgun was taken from Norman's car.

Lastly, the only truly, modern academic paper I could find on the subject (albeit in a format I am not a fan of) was A Perfect Storm: the Ocoee Riot of 1920 by Carlee Hoffman. Another version that is a little easier on the eyes is available on JSTOR, if you have access. In this paper, Hoffman gives two different accounts regarding the gun. The first is that Norman brought the gun when he confronted the poll workers; the other is that citizens took it from his car after searching it. Also of note about this paper is that it is the ONLY place I have found that affirms there were reports that Norman paid his poll tax. All of the other sources either ambiguously imply it, such as a handful that say Norman "allegedly" did not pay his poll tax, they are ambiguous on the subject, or they suggest or imply that he refused to pay it, such as the Wikipedia article linked. Of course, the paper saying that there were accounts that Norman had paid his poll tax, is not quite as definitive as the article (3rd screenshot) that reports White saying that Norman's poll tax was registered in the county seat.

PART III: THE QUESTION

Now, all of this about the gun is to accomplish two things: First, I wanted to show my prior research so that everyone could know that the answer to my question does NOT lie within these many sources (MANY other as well that were not so informative). Also, I wanted to highlight the unreliability of the information available regarding this story. That being said, my question is regarding something else. First, I will go back to the only other academic source I could find on the massacre that is about as far removed from our time, as the time of the massacre. In 1969, future mayor of Ocoee, Lester Dabbs Jr., presented his masters thesis, A REPORT OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND EVENTS OF THE RACE RIOT ON NOVEMBER 2, 1920 IN OCOEE, FLORIDA which was accepted by the faculty of Stetson University, but he held off publishing it for many years, not wanting to release it while the objects of his interviews were still alive. Of interest to my question is on page 32 (interestingly, the lone page that is flipped upside down on the PDF). It says:

Page 32 of A REPORT OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND EVENTS OF THE RACE RIOT ON NOVEMBER 2, 1920 IN OCOEE, FLORIDA by Lester Dabbs Jr.

The footnote to that is as follows:

Footnote 25 on page 32 of A REPORT OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND EVENTS OF THE RACE RIOT ON NOVEMBER 2, 1920 IN OCOEE, FLORIDA by Lester Dabbs Jr.

Sadly, I cannot find this newspaper as the Orlando Morning Sentinel is NOT the same as the Orlando Sentinel. However, I did find the 4 November 1920 Orlando Sentinel which says the following:

04NOV1920 edition of the Orlando Sentinel page 1

Further, in this 4 November 1920 Tampa Tribune article it claims:

04NOV1920 Tampa Tribune page 1

It continues,

04NOV1920 Tampa Tribune page 1

Lastly, the National Geographic article cited above claims that a black family, the Bells, had heard there were going to be KKK instigators in Ocoee stirring up trouble the day before the election. When you combine this with all the racial tension leading up to the election, and even the incidents of actual racial violence in the days before, it seems to me that the black community had to know something was going to happen. More than 70 blacks in Ocoee had registered to vote, and the Klan had sworn they would not allow it. So, while the newspapers paint this arsenal of weapons as rabble rousing ne'er-do-wells preparing to attack innocent whites, IF the black community had prepared for violence, I would view those preparations as prudent. Finally, that "if" is where my question comes in.

(I) What evidence is there that the black community, even small segments of the black community, prepared for a violent confrontation with whites, prior to the 2 November 1920 election in Ocoee, FL? The only firsthand account addressing the alleged munitions was in Dabbs's master thesis when Perry's nephew claimed there were no munitions and that race relations between the whites and blacks were good up until then. Further, literally, not a single source mentioned prior to "PART III" mentions anything about weapons caches in the black community, explosions as the fires raged, or preparation for violence in any way. I have three hypotheses for why this is.

First, there was absolutely zero grounding for these claims that there was preparation or any weapons stockpiling, that all the weapons and ammo found was regular ol' Americans being Americans, and this is why no modern source mentions it. (Ia) If this is the case, how do we know this? The second hypothesis to explain why no modern sources mention the large amounts of ammunition and weapons is that it makes a less sympathetic victim (again, if this is the case, it is unnecessary, as resorting to violence in order to secure your right to vote should be constitutionally protected). (Ib) If this is the case, how do we know this? Finally, a third hypothesis is that the modern researchers simply missed it. (Ic) If this is the case, how do we know this? (Id) Why was there ammo in the church?

To be clear, I will accept as an answer for:

(I): I am hoping someone can find the oral collections recorded by the New Deal project undertaken by the Works Progress Administration or any other oral histories or firsthand accounts of the events either explaining away the large amount materiel as innocent (i.e. Perry was an avid collector) or as in anticipation.

(Ia): For this, I will either take a mention of a modern researcher assessing the evidence regarding the large amount of lethal supplies and dismissing it, or, similarly to (I) an explanation from a survivor that renders the large amount of supplies harmless (again, such as Perry being an avid collector).

(Ib): I suspect if this is the case, we will find no evidence; however, an answer to this could come in the form of a researcher or museum director, etc. admitting that this bit was left out intentionally.

(Ic): Again, I suspect if this is the answer, we will never know; however, evidence could come in the form of newer research that I have missed addressing the numerous guns and excessive ammo.

(Id) I will accept any explanation from any academic, historical, or contemporaneous source whatsoever that addresses, in any way, why there was ammunition in the church, or even any other mentions of ammunition in the church.

Finally, to possibly help prevent duplicate research, here is a link with several different early newspaper accounts of the incident. I am pretty sure it's not behind a paywall. I appreciate any insight anyone could provide. Thanks.

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  • This sounds interesting but very long. Do you think you could pare it down a bit?
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 14:01
  • I'll point out that its far more likely your dog knows when you're in a bad mood than it is you know when your dog is in a bad mood. One's perhaps a matter of curiosity, while the other is a matter of survival.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 24, 2023 at 1:43
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    I know rather a lot about the Tulsa Race Massacre that happened within 6 months of it. There was a spurt of racial violence by whites against Black communities all over the nation that year. Following developments over the last 40 years, mainstream (largely white) sources push back on eyewitness black accounts, only to eventually see the witnesses backed up by evidence as more is acquired. So its pretty clear to me where the wrong side of history tends to be on these reports. For the most part, I'd trust the victim witnessess. The perps? If their lips are moving, they're lying.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 24, 2023 at 1:49
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    It seems this question may be to restricted in attempting to focus the need for African-Americans to defend themselves to the events directly related to this particular event. This event and the Tulsa race riots, as TED notes were just a continuation of events which had been going on across the country since the end of WW1. See the article about the Red Summer.
    – justCal
    Commented Sep 25, 2023 at 1:22
  • @Red Summer and T.E.D., this is slightly different from Tulsa ('21) and Rosewood ('23), because those incidents were sparked off by something at least semi-random. Yes tensions had been building for years; however, the final spark that lit everything off came essentially out of nowhere. In Ocoee, there was a set date for the confrontation. The KKK had declared they would not allow blacks to vote, and the black community was determined to vote. This sets a date and place for the confrontation. It would make sense to prepare. I am just confused by the ammo in the church. Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 23:37

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