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The Unsettled Legacy of the Bloodiest Election in American History

In 1920, the audacity of one Black man trying to vote in the November election in Ocoee, Florida, led to a riot that left six people dead, and caused all of Ocoee’s black residents to leave forever. The Orlando newspaper covered the incident, highlighting “2 white victims.” Of the four Black people who were killed, only one, July Perry, was ever identified by name. Pamela Schwartz of the Orange County Regional History Center tell the story.      

That invoice and headline illustrate the challenge facing Schwartz and other researchers. They’re typical of what she calls the “intentional obfuscation” of much of Black history, the product of official records that are sketchy or apathetic or worse. As a result, much of the evidence we inherit of such events is indirect and incidental. “You just didn’t go to Ocoee,” recalled Francina Boykin, a Black woman from nearby Apopka, while describing her childhood in an oral history that informed the exhibition. “You just didn’t.” People don’t always know why they were raised to avoid the town, but Boykin’s comments echo “the sentiment from almost every Black person we’ve done an oral history with, [even on subjects] totally unrelated to the Ocoee Massacre,” Schwartz says. That’s the thing about oral history, she adds. It leads to “this whole other world of information that lives in each individual”—information that is not always precise, but is nevertheless revealing.

The Ocoee Massacre left a legacy felt to this day. The Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando declined to do an exhibit on the incident in the early 21st century because it was still too sensitive. But this year, an exhibit about it will run until February. Read about the Ocoee Massacre of 1920 at Atlas Obscura.

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