Voter suppression was spark that ignited Ocoee Massacre. A century later, Florida’s Black voters are still facing obstacles
A look at the role of voter suppression in the 1920 massacre of residents of the all Black town of Ocoee, Florida reveals the ways in which terroristic violence has been used to disempower Black communities mobilized around living in their full citizenship. In this article, Orlando Sentinel reporter, Desiree Stennett, examines Florida’s long history of Black voter suppression and its impact on the struggle for Black enfranchisement today.
Link to Source: Orlando Sentinel
On Election Day in 1920, white mobs lynched a Black man in Orlando and burned countless homes in Ocoee, eradicating wealth and livelihoods while silencing the town’s Black community so completely that it is still impossible to know how many of its residents were killed.
It started with a Black man attempting to exercise his right to vote.
A century later, the Ocoee Massacre is still the largest recorded episode of Election Day violence in U.S. history, but it is also part of a broader legacy that persists to this day: Florida’s history of suppressing Black votes.
“If you take the Ocoee incident, there’s this voting thing at the center of it. … It is sort of the kindling, the spark. And what’s happening around it … is the effort to maintain white supremacy, which is voting, which is to say that we don’t want African Americans to vote,” said Robert Cassanello, a history professor at the University of Central Florida. “But it’s also to say that we don’t want African Americans to feel like they’re equal citizens in any capacity in life.”
The suppression of Black votes in Florida has taken many forms: horrific acts of violence, overt intimidation, and veiled legal, financial and educational hurdles, such as poll tax laws. The battle over one such impediment, felon disenfranchisement, is still being waged in the courts two years after the passage of Amendment 4 was supposed to have eliminated it.
This year, the stakes are high for Black voters. The police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville have spurred thousands of people to call for elected officials to reduce law enforcement budgets and reform policing while funding social needs like education, mental health services and housing.
Many see voting as key to making that change real.
But President Donald Trump has branded protesters “thugs” and “terrorists,” and encouraged his supporters to watch polls, raising the specter of organized intimidation. And at the first presidential debate last month, when asked if he would publicly denounce white supremacist groups, the president instead told the far-right group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
He has also repeatedly made unfounded claims that voting by mail would lead to fraud, even as mail voting has gained popularity as a safe way to cast a ballot during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Even if you just listen to what the leadership says, it can dissuade people from voting,” said LaVon Bracy, a Central Florida author and voting rights advocate. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I just hear there are going to be so many problems, so I just won’t vote,’” she added, calling Trump’s rhetoric “a form of voter suppression.”
“That’s the language of suppression.”
Barriers erected after Reconstruction
The rights of Black citizens quickly expanded during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War and, following the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Black voters soon made up about half of Florida’s voting population.
But Florida and other southern states pushed back with laws like literacy tests, poll taxes and white-only primaries that effectively, if not explicitly, stripped Blacks of their right to vote. The Black electorate in Florida dropped by about 85% following Reconstruction, said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.
The states were able to do so because of the wording of the amendment: Voting rights, it said, could not be taken away “on account of” a voter’s race. But that didn’t prevent states from crafting other restrictions in ways meant to target the Black population.
“That really became the key for Florida and other southern states: to come up with devices that did not mention race as a discriminatory barrier but the device itself disproportionately adversely affected African American voters,” Paulson said.
This period introduced several supposedly race-neutral barriers that today are widely identified as forms of race-based voter suppression.
Among the most ubiquitous were literacy tests. Officially a race-neutral precondition for voting, Paulson said Black voters were often asked more-complex test questions than whites, including questions about detailed government processes — or impossible ones, like, “How many bubbles are on a bar of soap?”
Meanwhile, many whites did not have to take them at all: A companion law to the literacy test added a “grandfather clause” that exempted anyone who had a relative who had voted prior to 1867, when Black Floridians were not allowed to vote. The effect of the grandfather clause was no secret at the time: A June 1, 1915, article on the front page of the Orlando Morning Sentinel explained that the bill would “eliminate practically every negro voter in the state.”
Then there was the fact that Blacks were prohibited from voting in primaries for the Democratic Party, the segregationist party at the time. Florida was effectively a one-party state and the Democratic nominee, chosen exclusively by white voters in the primary, was almost guaranteed to win the general election, making Black votes mostly irrelevant.
“Even if Blacks could get by one of these barriers or two of these barriers, there were still 10 other barriers in their way,” Paulson said. Some of the barriers were more overt: In the weeks before the 1920 presidential election, the Ku Klux Klan held public demonstrations in Orlando and Jacksonville meant to intimidate would-be Black voters into staying at home.
That came after newspaper articles reported that, as women were registering to vote for the first time after the passage of the 19th Amendment, for every one white woman to register, 10 to 15 Black women were doing the same. At the time, one prominent official called the disparity a “menace,” urging white women to register in greater numbers. For Black women who registered to vote in 1920, their right to vote was “just on paper,” said historian and state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere.
That year, Moses Norman, a Black Ocoee resident, attempted to vote in the presidential election and was denied access to the polls twice, the second time fleeing after a confrontation. A white mob seeking him soon arrived at the home of his friend, Julius “July” Perry, leading to a shootout. Perry was later captured and lynched in Orlando. The white mob burned countless homes and two churches in Ocoee’s Black community. The death toll of the Ocoee Massacre remains unclear, with some accounts only acknowledging the deaths of two white men and others estimating that dozens of Black residents were killed. The town’s remaining Black residents fled, leaving Ocoee all-white for half a century. Black men and women did not begin to vote in Florida without the widespread threat of violence until the 1950s, with the 1965 Voting Rights Act — hard won in sometimes bloody and dehumanizing clashes across the South — providing further protection. By this point, white-only primary elections had ended — cast aside by a pair of decisions by the U.S. and state Supreme Courts in the mid-’40s — and ideologies of the political parties had shifted. Black voters who once identified with the Republican Party were now supporting the Democratic Party, which was turning away from its segregationist past.
But even as the new law was enacted, electing Black leaders was still a challenge. Though Black politicians found some political success following the Civil War, by the 1960s that was largely erased. Orlando didn’t see its first Black member of City Council until Arthur “Pappy” Kennedy won in 1972 — seated only after a legal battle over absentee ballots.
“He had to sue to become a member of the Orlando City Council,” Thompson said.
At the time, the City Council was still an at-large system, meaning that council members needed to win the votes of the entire city, not just the district they would represent. Kennedy, well-known by both Black and white residents who frequented the restaurant where he worked, was able to triumph in a system that made it almost impossible for Black political hopefuls to get elected, even with overwhelming support in the Black community.
Kennedy worked to end the at-large system, creating single-member districts in which Black politicians could compete.
“So in 1980, there were two seats that had been carved out that African Americans were competitive in, and you had Ernest Page, who won, and you had Nap Ford, who won,” Thompson said. “And that was because of single-member districts rather than at-large.”
In Winter Park, Black residents have for years pushed a change from at-large to single-member districts, arguing the current system has shut out Black candidates for more than a century. Winter Park hasn’t had a Black elected official since 1897, when the city was still a town.
Voters are expected to weigh in on the proposed change in March.
Court wins ‘extraordinarily difficult’
After an election fiasco plagued by a recount and a Supreme Court ruling to determine the presidency in 2000, state legislators created new early voting laws to standardize and expand voting access across Florida.
“It was meant to say: we’re not a backward state,” said Neil Henrichsen, a Jacksonville Civil Rights attorney. The new law, passed in 2004, provided up to 14 days of early voting that would end on the Sunday before Election Day. According to data compiled by University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith, it was embraced widely, particularly in the Black community.
In the 2002 midterm election, only 6% of votes were cast early, Smith’s data show. By 2006, it was up to 16% and by 2008, President Barack Obama’s first election, one-third of voters cast their ballots early. Among Black voters, the last Sunday before the election was most popular. Though they made up only 13% of the electorate, in 2008, they made up about 34% of voters on the Sunday before Election Day. The disproportionately high early voting turnout continued in 2010. But in 2011, the law changed.
The Republican-led Legislature voted to cut the early voting days back, from up to 14 days to no more than eight days. And early voting was prohibited on the final Sunday before Election Day — the day Black churches had made a tradition of hosting “Souls to the Polls” events.
Then-Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 1355 into law. At the time, the bill’s supporters claimed it would curtail voter fraud. But between January 2008 and March 2011, only 31 cases of voter fraud were referred to the Department of Law Enforcement, among millions of votes. There was a flurry of lawsuits. Although the new law made no mention of race, Democratic members of Congress, clergy members and civil rights groups all saw it as meant to subdue the Black vote ahead of Obama’s re-election bid. Smith’s data was presented in a lawsuit filed by ex-Congresswoman Corrine Brown in a Jacksonville federal court.
“In my opinion, the implementation of H.B. 1355 and the reduction of early voting days may restrict the ability of African Americans to exercise their franchise in the upcoming 2012 August primary and November general election,” Smith wrote in an affidavit filed alongside the lawsuit. Despite the data, the lawsuit faced a difficult road.
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to have the court say, ‘This is based on race discrimination’…,” said Henrichsen, the attorney on the case. “When you’re saying the government has engaged in race discrimination, it’s very difficult to win those cases.”
In September 2012, Judge Timothy Corrigan ruled that the case “failed to demonstrate that they are substantially likely to prove that the 2011 changes to the Early Voting Statute were made with the intent to discriminate against minority voters or that Florida’s current Early Voting Statute operates to deny or abridge African Americans’ right to vote on account of their race.” But it wasn’t just up to Corrigan.
Because of a history of discriminatory voting practices in five Florida counties, a since-gutted portion of the Voting Rights Act required the Department of Justice to review any changes to the voting laws in those counties — Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hendry and Hardee.
“We find that minority voters disproportionately use early in-person voting, and therefore will be disproportionately affected by the changes in early voting procedures,” a three judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote in a 156-page opinion, shooting down the changes as discriminatory. Though the law was in place during the 2012 elections, by the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers mostly reverted early voting back to its previous state, expanding the available days and making the Sunday before Election Day an option for early voting.
The most persistent of Florida’s Reconstruction-era voting restrictions has been felony disenfranchisement, which prohibited anyone with a felony conviction from voting again unless their rights were restored through the cumbersome clemency process.
In 1868, when felony disenfranchisement first became law, the felony that took away the right to vote for many Black residents was a vague prohibition against “vagrancy” that allowed law enforcement officers to arrest any Black person who could not prove they were employed.
“Florida has a unique characteristic of making certain things felonies that are not felonies in other states,” said, Paulson, the USF professor. The 2018 Amendment 4 campaign, led by the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, garnered nearly 65% support for ending felony disenfranchisement. At the time, Florida was one of only four states that still permanently barred people with felony convictions from voting.
“There’s no escaping the harsh realities of the history of felony disfranchisement,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the FRCC. “We know that it was originally intended to prevent newly freed slaves from participating at the ballot box. There is no escaping the fact that the Black community, minority communities, are more disproportionately policed than any other community.”
But he emphasized that, the despite the racist roots, if Amendment 4 can be implemented broadly, voters of all races stand to benefit. While a majority of Florida’s electorate voted for people convicted of felonies ― excluding murder and rape ― to regain their right to vote after their sentence is complete, whether that includes paying fines and court fees remains up for debate, leaving many who had otherwise completed their sentences and registered when the amendment was first passed in limbo, without knowing whether they can legally vote this election.
Judge Robert Hinkle in Tallahassee in May ruled the requirement to pay all fines and fees unconstitutional and said it created a “pay-to-vote system” that excludes many for economic hardship when they would otherwise be able to vote.
The decision was later struck down after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration appealed.
While that fight continues, clergy members and activists are working to get the largest number of eligible Black voters to the polls as possible, an effort they have historically led.
Bracy, the voting rights advocate, has partnered with Black clergy at several local churches to plan a three-day Souls to the Polls event in Parramore this month. She said she hopes to see record voter turnout numbers in the historically Black community.
“Voting in the Black community is crucial,” she said. “We need to make sure we are well represented.”