Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series about teaching honest, local history.
In 1920, Black residents in Ocoee, Florida, attempted to break through white supremacist barriers and invoke true democracy. They intended to vote in the general election, but local Ku Klux Klan members—and others who wanted to maintain a white power structure—threatened them with violence. On Election Day, white supremacists acted on those threats.
Although Black people were turned away at polling locations, a white mob still set out to murder those who attempted to exercise their constitutional right, including prominent businessman and labor leader July Perry. They lynched Perry after the mob went to his house searching for Moses Norman—another businessman determined to vote.
The white mob continued the rampage by setting fire to homes and buildings and shooting Black people. There is no accurate count of loss of life, but the death toll estimate ranges from three to 60. Nearly all of the remaining Black people who lived in Ocoee, Florida, at the time fled, and the rampage became known as the Ocoee Massacre.
Election-related violence inflicted on Black communities like Ocoee, Florida,—and countless others in our country’s history—makes it clear that there is power in the vote.
Alysha Butler-Arnold, a southern Florida native who now teaches 11th grade U.S. History and African American Studies in Washington, D.C., explained it this way: “If you couldn’t do anything, if you were helpless, if the system could not change, they would not be doing everything they possibly could to prevent you from being able to exercise your right to vote.”
Violence to suppress Black voters had been happening since the end of Reconstruction in places such as the Louisiana cities of New Orleans, Opelousas, and Colfax, as well as Eufaula, Alabama; Hamburg, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina. Examining these acts of violence helps us contextualize how systems of oppression continue to thwart free and fair elections today.
From the Ocoee Massacre to January 6
The goal of the perpetrators of the Ocoee Massacre, and other election-related violence, was to prevent Black people from becoming full citizens. They sought to maintain white supremacy by any means. More than a century later, we witnessed the same calls to disrupt attempts to establish a more inclusive society.
The violence unleashed at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, shocked many. Still, it was hardly an unusual event in this country. However, the refrain—“This isn’t who we are”—was muttered by politicians and other citizens following the attack.
Butler-Arnold says history shows us otherwise.
“This is very much America,” she exclaims … “I think we say [‘this isn’t who we are] because that’s what we would like to believe. We’ve always been told we’ve been exceptional; that we’re not like other places. We want to believe that.”
Butler-Arnold grew up hearing stories about racial violence in Florida from her grandfather, whose parents immigrated there from the Bahamas in the 1920s. Being surrounded by so much history is one of the reasons she majored in history in college and became a teacher. She wanted to share these stories.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s research, Florida—once part of the Confederacy—had one of the highest per capita rates of lynching by total population between 1877 and 1950.
“Florida is very much part of the South,” Butler-Arnold says. “And so, I think that it’s important to highlight stories like Ocoee.”
Butler-Arnold makes sure her students understand historical context. As she pointed out in an essay published in Social Education, her students weren’t surprised by what happened on January 6. They’d already had lessons about events in Ocoee, Florida, Colfax, Louisiana, and Wilmington, North Carolina. Her students have also created Venn diagrams to compare and contrast Election Day massacres and what happened during the Capitol insurrection.
In her essay, she states, “This is the America I make sure to also teach my students so that they not only take the threat of white supremacists seriously but also exercise their right to vote in order to change the laws that enable that threat.”
Learning about these events helps young people understand the root of violence, discrimination and disparities they see today. It can also lead them to lessons about their own communities and open them up to ways they can become active participants in a diverse democracy.
Combatting the Silencing of Honest History
In Florida, citizens of all ages and backgrounds are having conversations about hard history and inclusive education. Meanwhile, some lawmakers work to suppress voters and censor what students learn in school.
In 2020, state legislators passed a law that requires schools to teach about the Holocaust, the Ocoee Massacre and other historical events. Just one year later, state legislators censored how teachers talked about racism and discrimination—deeming conversations about these concepts as “critical race theory.” This year, they passed the STOP “Woke” Act (woke is an acronym for Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees). The law, which is currently being challenged in federal courts, would allow parents and other community members to sue schools or teachers who teach lessons they believe cause discomfort in students.
A coalition of educators and students are suing the state, asserting that the new law is unconstitutional. But there is still a threat of penalty for teachers who teach honest history or attempt to establish practices that champion inclusiveness and equity.
Opponents of the new law assert that it does a disservice to students and threatens the future of our democracy. Learning a complete and honest history is especially important for Ocoee, Florida, residents, as the city still experiences the effects of the 1920 massacre.
For nearly 80 years, people didn’t speak publicly about the massacre, and there have always been efforts to keep that history buried.
In 1920, the Black community in Ocoee, Florida, flourished and comprised 31% of the city’s population. Only two Black residents remained when the bloodshed was over, according to the 1930 census. Ocoee instantly became a sundown town. Black people would not move back to the city until more than 50 years later. Today, Ocoee is much more diverse. Black people now comprise 21% of the population, and Latine/x comprise 27%. However, some transplants have admitted they knew nothing of the history before moving there.
We can see why Ocoee, Florida, remained nearly all-white for decades and why there are home ownership and economic gaps between Black and white residents. Black residents were not permitted to buy land in the town immediately after the massacre. Within two weeks, news ads for land sales were made public. One ad read, “Several beautiful little groves belonging to the negroes that have just left must be sold.” And lands sales—done illegally—were often conveyed with the condition that they not be sold to a Black person. Black people lost any potential for generational wealth.
There are Ocoees everywhere. The Ocoee Massacre is an important lesson when discussing voting rights and racial justice. Supporting young people in finding similarities in their community helps them conceptualize oppressive systems and how they are affected by them today.
For example, Butler-Arnold also digs into the history of Washington, D.C., when discussing election-related violence that happened elsewhere. Racial violence was prevalent following Reconstruction and continued well into the 20th century. Red Summer, in 1919, for example, preceded the violence that happened in Ocoee, Florida. It’s all connected.
“When we talk about the areas where racial violence broke out in D.C. in 1919,” Butler-Arnold explains, “a lot of the students are like, ‘Oh my God, that’s where I live’ or ‘I walk that route going to school catching the metro.’ So, it’s so important.”
Uplifting Defenders of Democracy and Rejecting Apathy
In March 2021, Gov. DeSantis told Florida reporters that “teaching kids to hate our country and to hate each other based on race, it puts race as the most important thing. I want content of character to be the most important thing.”
But Butler-Arnold argues that learning our shared history and urging students to think critically about the past so as not to repeat the horrors is rooted in love of country, not hate. She says uplifting defenders of democracy, like Mississippi activist Fannie Lou Hamer, should be included in civics education. Defenders of democracy also include people like July Perry and Moses Norman—names that people outside of Florida may have never heard. They organized and advocated for voting rights decades before the recognized events of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“By highlighting those people [who] make it better, you have to tell how they made it better,” Butler says. “By doing that, then you have to tell the whole story.”
It’s crucial that young people feel empowered by learning about these events, rather than defeated by it. Butler says educators must show their enthusiasm for democratic processes—from jury duty to voting.
“Attitude reflects leadership,” she says. “We can’t expect our students to be enthused about voting and about their civic duty if we as teachers aren’t. If we want to fight apathy, then we need to make sure that we don’t have it within ourselves when it comes to our justice system and our civic duty.”
Butler-Arnold says even with the pervasiveness of racial injustice, people have always managed to have hope. She shares that outlook with her students, whom she’s inspired to become voters.
“Oftentimes, they’ll email me and say, ‘I voted for the first time,’” she says about former students. “And that makes me feel good. That makes me feel like I’ve done my job.”