Ocoee Massacre of 1920: Victim's great-niece says African-Americans were murdered for exercising right to vote

On the surface, Sha'ron Cooley McWhite has a good life. She's a teacher and has a loving family and home. However, her family carries around a tragic past that forever connects them to the largest incident of voting-day violence in U.S. History: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920. This is when her Great-Uncle Julius 'July' Perry was lynched and an unknown number of African-Americans were murdered because a black man tried to exercise his legal right to vote on election day.

"The details of how he was killed... it's very hard for me to share and talk about but he was killed. Senseless," Sharon said. Despite happing over 100 years ago, this tragic event has caused her family pain and suffering to this day.

Pam Schwartz, the Chief Curator at Orange County's Regional History Center, said that there are hundreds of versions of what happened on November 2, 1920. We do know that July Perry's friend tried to vote but was turned away from the polls. That night, a mob of armed white men, possibly including some KKK members, went to Perry's home looking for his friend. She added that "anywhere from six to 100 people showed up. A riot broke out. There were gunshots fired... There were actual fires set to his home." 

McWhite told FOX 35 News that her Great-Uncle Perry was captured, taken to jail, lynched, and hanged. She said that "it’s unthinkable but the most important part is not how he was killed. It’s why he was killed. That’s what we need to talk about."

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Schwartz added that "the general idea is that this was all to make sure that African-Americans were not getting out to vote. It was to take land from people who were rising to prominence, who were creating a life for themselves."

Some newspaper headlines in 1920 focused on the two white men who were killed instead of the six to 60 African-Americans who were reportedly murdered during the riots. Their homes and churches were burned to the ground, with part of the white population intent on driving out the black people living there. 

It would take another 50 years before African-Americans moved back to Ocoee. McWhite said that she can see that the city is making progress in diversity but believes as a country, we are still dealing with voting issues. She said that "there are so many of us that still have that fear. The fear that if we do vote, there will be consequences. The fear of standing for what's right, how it would affect our family members."

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When it comes to honoring her Great-Uncle's legacy, McWhite said that there has been progress. In 2018, Ocoee officials issued a proclamation acknowledging its dark past. There is a monument at the hallowed ground, which is reportedly a site of an African-American cemetery. There is also a sign in Downtown Orlando honoring July Perry. The Orange County History Center said that they are working on a special exhibit this year to commemorate the 100th year since the riots.

"That's a part of healing. When we can communicate about the things in life that hurt us the most," McWhite said.

Tune in to Good Day Orlando on FOX 35 News between 6 and 10 a.m. for more on Black History Month in Central Florida.