OCOEE, Fla. — Student scholarships for college and loans for Black-owned businesses are part of a plan to move forward with a proposal for a form of reparations for descendants of the Ocoee Massacre victims.
A similar plan failed to get any support last year during the state legislative session. In fact, the sponsor, Sen. Randolph Bracy of Ocoee, was forced to take reparations out of a bill that was approved, and now mandates that the details of the Nov. 2, 1920 massacre be taught in schools across the state.
Bracy said this deal he’s negotiating would allow bypassing the traditional legislative process of sending the bill through committees and both legislative chambers for approval. Instead, it would be a recurring line item in the budget, tacking it onto the Black Business Loan and Rosewood Scholarship programs already in place.
“It would be historic in nature. The only time in the country that a reparations bill has passed was the Rosewood bill of 1994, I believe and so, I believe we’re going to do it again. I’m very hopeful, the conversations have been positive with the president and the speaker, so I believe this is the year,” Bracy said during a news conference in Tallahassee on Wednesday.
It’s a softer approach than his first push for reparations, which would have required financial reparations to the descendants of the African Americans who owned land in Ocoee in 1920. Their ancestors were attracted to rural west Orange County in the late 1800s by the ripe agricultural prospects.
Florida was attractive to early settlers because of its vast land, and the state became a cash cow for the state’s agricultural business. The sandy soil and the climate were prime for citrus farming. On Wednesday, the state still celebrates it as a $9 billion industry, responsible for providing jobs to nearly 76,000 Floridians, with 70% of the U.S. citrus supply coming from Florida.
Globally, the only other place producing more orange juice than Florida is Brazil. Florida also leads the market in grapefruit production. Back in the mid-1800s, the closest shipping port was in Sanford; it made for a long commute from west Orange County during those times. Transport became easier, though, when Florida Midland Railroad made its way to Central Florida.
But after gaining financial stability and building a thriving community, every Black resident was forced out of the area when some of them tried to vote in the 1920 presidential election. An untold number of Black people were killed, including July Perry, who was lynched. Robert Hickey’s grandparents, John and Lucy Hickey, escaped to Apopka.
According to estimates by the Orange County Regional History Center, the Hickeys owned 58 acres of land, with an estimated value today of about $1.2 million.
“Six thousand dollars, 50 students, hardly enough, but it’s a start. These business loans, who are they for?,” Hickey asked, when Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones spoke with him during a Zoom interview from his home in New York.
Hickey recalled the story he told us before about how his grandparents watched their friends’ properties go up in flames, and they finally decided to leave once the flames inched closer to their property. The family had previously tried to hire a lawyer who worked on reparations for the Rosewood massacre victims and their descendants, but they were told the state of Florida would never allow another bill like it to pass.
“I have all the contracts,” Hickey said of his grandparents’ property.
Under Bracy’s measure, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity would prioritize any applications for Black business enterprises in the area directly impacted by the 1920 Election Day Massacre. The department would establish an application and annual certification process for entities seeking funds to participate in providing loans, loan guarantees or investments. The department would process all applications and recertifications that were submitted by June 1 on or before July 31 each year.
The Ocoee Scholarship Program for direct descendants of victims and current African American residents of Ocoee would receive up to $6,100 to cover tuition and registration fees, with a cap of 50 scholarships per academic year. If funds are insufficient to provide a full scholarship to each eligible applicant, the state could prorate available funds and make a partial award to each eligible applicant.
The state would rank eligible initial applicants for the purposes of awarding scholarships based on need, as determined by the department overseeing the process. This process is similar to what’s already in place for Rosewood Massacre descendants. That primarily African American community was also destroyed by fire, two years after the Ocoee Massacre.
9 Investigates found the state has consistently awarded between 24-28 of those scholarships since 2014 and set aside about $256,747 to do it.
“My thoughts are that we’ll use the pot of money that’s already there and increase it. And since it’s been a recurring item that’s been there since the ’90s, it will be enough to include Rosewood and Ocoee descendants. I’m not under the illusion that people will think this is enough, but considering the makeup of the legislature, considering the climate, the fact that we’re seriously negotiating this, I think is a step forward,” Bracy said.
Hickey, who now lives in New York City but has relatives all over the state of Florida, said he believes this should only be a starting point in repaying what he says was taken from his grandparents 100 years ago.
“Their way of life was taken from them, and as a descendant of them, I mean I lost out to, in some respect, and so will my children, according to what my grandparents had achieved, and I think that a fair settlement in terms of reparations should happen,” Hickey said.