A century ago, black residents of Ocoee were killed or forced from their homes for trying to vote

Sen. Bracy seeks reparations, citing state roles in the tragedy

The Truth and Justice Center of Orange County unveiled a historical marker in downtown Orlando in June in memory of July Perry, a victim of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Riots. Legislation pending in Tallahassee seeks reparations. Credit: Orlando Police Department.

One-hundred years ago, a deadly riot tore through the Orange County town of Ocoee after whites lynched a prosperous African-American landowner for trying to vote in a presidential election and for encouraging others to vote.

Florida Sen. Randolph Bracy, an Orange County Democrat, wants the state to pay reparations to descendants of  victims of the “Ocoee Election Day Riots,” not only because residents were murdered or fled for their lives but because the state played an official role in the killings and in the taking and redistribution of the victims’ land holdings.

His bill to create a trust fund for the descendants – stripped of the funding Bracy wanted – passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, 4-1, last week and now advances to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.

“This is considered the bloodiest day in American political history, and it happened right in central Florida. On presidential election day, an entire city was eliminated. They were killed, maimed or run out of town,” Bracy said.

Estimates of the number of people killed vary from three to 60.

“The state courts conspired with local law enforcement to redistribute the property of the black residents who were there. There was no proper state investigation, and the mob that incited this riot was state-deputized. The state funded the actors, the mob, at this time.”

The two-day riot began with the lynching of Julius “July” Perry, who defied a Ku Klux Klan order not to vote, and ended with the surviving African-American population of Ocoee, estimated at 255, abandoning their town and their property after whites put the torch to 20 houses, two churches, and a fraternal lodge.

Bracy said they left hundreds of acres of private property behind, now worth millions, which state courts and local law-enforcement officials redistributed to the town’s white residents.

This claim for reparations is justified because the state was officially complicit in the brutal injustice, Bracy said.

Yulee resident Seber Newsome III testified against the bill, saying the Ocoee election-day riots were a horrible incident that should be commemorated but not with reparations.

“When you want to pay reparations to the descendants of these victims, you are going too far, and you would be opening a legal can of worms,” Newsome said, citing the Seminole, Muskogee, and Creek tribes of Florida among the groups that would have an equal right to demand reparations after being removed by the government from their homelands.

“[They] were all forced to leave and march on the Trail of Tears with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” he continued. “And descendants of every white person who has been murdered by a black person since 1920 could ask for reparations as well.”

Newsome said taxpayers should not have to pay reparations for crimes they did not commit. He did not address whether any of those taxpayers may have profited from the illegal taking of the victims’ land holdings.

“What happened 100 years ago was a terrible, horrible tragedy. The only ones responsible are the ones who committed those crimes during the riots 100 years ago,” he said.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, Republican from Lake and Polk counties, said she would support Bracy’s bill – and its provisions calling for education and commemoration of the tragedy – but not a specific appropriation for the descendants.

“I like the approach you’ve taken on making sure there is education and awareness so these things don’t happen again. But I do have concern on putting a number amount and choosing which people would be able to have reparations and which won’t,” Stargel said.

“I know we started that precedent back with, I think, Rosewood, or Rosemond – back to awareness, I should be able to recall that name right off the top of my head, unfortunately –  but we will continue to work to make sure people are aware of these things.”

She meant the town of Rosewood, in Levy County. In 1994, the Legislature approved $2.1 million in compensation and other reparations for descendants of African-Americans killed or forced out of their homes there by racist violence in 1923. The Orlando Sentinel’s Ryan Gillespie reviewed the Rosewood case in this article in May.

Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles apologized to the victims and their families for the state’s failure to intervene in the violence and for failing to prosecute the perpetrators.

Bracy reiterated he believes the Ocoee Election Day Riots surpass a high bar for reparations because the state was officially complicit in the violence and in the illegal taking of the victims’ property. He said it’s clear the state of Florida owes a debt to the descendants of the victims.

For now, Bracy’s bill has no funding source. Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican representing Sumter, Lake, and Marion counties, voted no without comment. Voting yes were Chairman David Simmons, a Republican from Seminole and Volusia counties; Vice Chair Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat from Broward cosponsoring the bill; Democratic Leader and Duval County Sen. Audrey Gibson; and Stargel.

Bracy said he will seek money for the trust fund in separate legislation.

In the House, Rep. Kamia Brown, Orange County Democrat, is sponsoring similar legislation, which was referred to the House Civil Justice Subcommittee but is not yet scheduled for a hearing.