OCOEE, Fla. — Robert Hickey stood in proximity of the land his grandparents once owned — land that could’ve been passed down to him. Instead, he now lives in New York, where he’s grown increasingly frustrated over the generational wealth that was taken from the Hickey lineage.
“We will never benefit off their sweat and what was produced. Someone is living quite well now, the least they could do is name some place, you know, Hickey Park at Starke Lake, something,” Hickey said.
Instead, the Florida House and Senate Budget Appropriations Committee has positioned the state to offer scholarships to descendants of the Ocoee Massacre of Nov. 2, 1920. The road to get here was just as tough as it was to get the city of Ocoee to finally acknowledge and script an apology 100 years after the horrific event.
Hickey was raised by his grandparents, John and Lucy Hickey, in Apopka. The couple, like other Black families in the rural settlement that would become Ocoee, was forced to leave town when white mobs rushed the area from all over the region. The violence occured after people heard that Mose Norman, a Black landowner, got into a scuffle when trying to exercise his legal right to vote in the presidential election on Election Day.
“As my grandma said, she was caught completely off guard. She’s standing on her front porch, she looks out and she could see all these fires ablaze all around her and it was getting closer and closer, so they had to flee,” Hickey recalls.
An untold number of Black people were killed, and everyone else left. Julius “July” Perry was lynched when the mob confronted his family at this home, thinking Norman went there for refuge.
John Hickey had settled in Ocoee from Moultrie, Georgia. His wife, Lucy, was from the Florida Panhandle. Hickey earned a living distilling turpentine, and over time bought up a lot of property in the rural area.
According to the Orange County Regional History Center, which has done extensive land deed research on the formerly Black-owned land in Ocoee, the Hickeys were among the largest property owners at one time, with at least 50 acres. Hickey told us the family tried to hire a lawyer who worked on reparations for the victims of the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, but were discouraged from pushing the issue regarding their family land.
He wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the scholarship measure.
“It’s a way of clearing their conscience, so to speak, for the wrong that was done. But in the meantime, someone is profiting and living off the sweat and labor and achievements of other people,” Hickey said.
Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat of Ocoee, has been working on the scholarship proposal since a full reparations measure failed during the 2020 legislative session. Bracy said he was told in no uncertain terms that financial repair for the descendants of the victims was dead on arrival. Lawmakers did agree to require Florida students to be taught about the history of the massacre.
“The legislature is a slow-moving body, and it doesn’t always move to the wills and wants of people. We will see if there’s an appetite to consider more, but right now this is what they were willing to consider,” Bracy said.
Initially, Bracy proposed legislation that would require the scholarships, but worked out a deal with top Republican leadership that will add funding for the awards through the state budget.
“We are very proud, and I want you to know that the Senate president Simpson should be congratulated by you for doing this, but we have $305,000 for the Ocoee scholarship program,” Bracy announced during a committee meeting late Friday night.
Direct descendants of massacre victims and current African American residents of Ocoee are eligible for the scholarships. The state will award up $6,100 each year to as may as 50 qualified applicants, based on need.
The scholarships mirror what’s already in place for descendants of the Rosewood Massacre. An analysis of state Department of Education records reveals the state has consistently awarded between 24-28 of those scholarships since 2014, and set aside about $256,747 for them. It had been the first form of reparations ever offered by the state of Florida.
Hickey thinks about what could have been. His grandparents’ land has an estimated value today of about $1.2 million, according to the Orange County Regional History Center land deed research records. When Hickey rides by other areas where Black families used to own land in Ocoee, he sees demolition trucks poised to make room for commercial and residential real estate in a community that’s much more diverse than he was once told.
“Black people, you know, could be lynched ... just by walking into Ocoee,” Hickey recalls.
According to census data, Black families started returning to Ocoee in the late 1970s. Now, African Americans represent about 19% of the city’s population.
The scholarships could benefit some of their children, too.
Since the awards are included as a budget item, they will be finalized once and if the governor signs off on it within the budget agreement.