ORLANDO, Fla. — Ocoee, Florida, is not a city widely known outside of the greater Orlando area. But what if we told you, however, that it’s the city where the plans for Disney World were developed? Yes, that’s right, in an old hotel called the Colony Plaza. The hotel served as its temporary headquarters, though later abandoned and demolished.
Ocoee also has a much more troubling past.
The history we don’t know, forget, neglect or simply refuse to acknowledge is bound to resurface. It’s not a novel sentiment, but it’s certainly one shared by the descendants of the Black Americans who, 100 years ago, lost their lives, their land and their homes in the Ocoee Massacre.
The atrocity in the rural settlement started on Nov. 2, 1920. It was Election Day; America was choosing a new president. That year remains an overlooked but deeply disturbing chapter in the civil rights history of the country and Central Florida. It occurred before the race-based massacres in Rosewood and Tulsa. It was, in fact, a prelude to those horrific injustices. However, many people, even in the greater Orlando area – don’t even know it happened.
An untold number of people were killed, Black and white. It led to the lynching of one of Ocoee’s most successful Black businessmen, Julius ‘July’ Perry, in downtown Orlando. Described as the “single bloodiest day in modern American political history,” it brought about the forced removal of hundreds of Black citizens from Ocoee. Black people would not return to what would become Orlando’s western suburb for decades, many unaware of the area’s fraught racial past.
But for those family members who have heard the story of July Perry and Nov. 2, 1920, passed down from one generation to the next, the Ocoee Massacre remains an open wound. Reparations. Compensation for lost land and wealth. A street named for Perry. A memorial to honor his name. The historians, civil rights leaders and advocates say these measures have all been discussed for decades, but 100 years later – nothing.
What can be done, without ordinance or legislation or City Hall meetings, is a thorough accounting of what happened here in the heart of Central Florida, 100 years ago. What can help heal the wounds, is an open discussion.
WFTV tells the Ocoee Massacre story through its documentary that premiered on Eyewitness News, Nov. 1, 2020, one day before the 100th anniversary of the event. WFTV journalists spent hours interviewing more than two dozen individuals impacted directly or indirectly by the Ocoee Massacre.
Many of the records related to the Ocoee Massacre don’t exist or have been purged. Our team relied on oral history, historical documents obtained from historians, researchers and community members. They have pushed to tell the story for decades, but no one would listen. It’s an episode painful to study, but at a time when our nation still struggles with its racial identity, it is perhaps one too dangerous to ignore one century later.
The documentary film is available to watch on demand on WFTV’s streaming apps for Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV. In addition, you can click on the link below to watch it on this website.
Editors' Note: Some of the accounts are disturbing. Some individuals might find them triggering.
WFTV would like to wish special thanks to Francina Boykin, Melissa Fussell, Orange County Regional History Center, BeatCreative Marketing, Castaldo Media Photo & Video for use of historical documents and archival footage.
Cox Media Group