Black lawmakers push scholarships for descendants of 1920 Ocoee riot victims, but will there be funds?

The Truth and Justice Center of Orange County unveiled a historical marker in downtown Orlando in June 2019 in memory of July Perry, a victim of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Riots. Credit: Orlando Police Department.

A hundred years ago, dozens of Blacks in Central Florida were killed in a deadly riot for exercising their right to vote — a shameful episode of Florida’s history.

A century later, Orlando State Sen. Randolph Bracy is pushing hard to bring awareness of the horrific events that occurred in the small Black community, through a college scholarship program for direct descendants of the victims of the Ocoee Election Day Riots of November 1920, or current Black residents of Ocoee.

The “Randolph Bracy Ocoee Scholarship Program” would allow continued state funds of $305,000 for “up to 50 scholarships to eligible students annually, in an amount up to $6,100, not to exceed the amount of the student’s tuition and registration fees.”

At issue, though, is whether the Florida Legislature will agree to approve the funds in the state’s massive budget for 2021-22.

So far, the state Senate put the dollars into its proposed state budget for 2021-22, but the state House hasn’t done so. That sets up negotiations, because both chambers must agree on the dollars to be able to secure the funds in the state budget.

State Rep. Kamia Brown is involved — she represents part of Orange County and lists her residence as Ocoee in her House bio. She is the House sponsor of the college scholarship program, while Bracy is the Senate sponsor. Both are Black Democrats in the GOP Legislature, and Bracy is hinting at a campaign for governor in 2022.

The bills by the two lawmakers are separate pieces of legislation that thus far haven’t gotten a lot of traction this legislative session.

But on Friday, the state Senate released its proposed state budget for 2021-22 and the Randolph Bracy Ocoee Scholarship Program landed in the massive document.

Brown said in a phone conversation with the Florida Phoenix that her major priority is to gain support from top Republican lawmakers in the Florida House “to see if we can get the House to come to an agreement” about the Ocoee scholarship program.

“We are looking to have that conversation with the Speaker and the appropriations chair,” Brown said, referring to Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls. Jay Trumbull, a Bay County Republican, is the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

“Right now the House has put together their priorities,” said Brown. “It will be my job in the House to get that in the budget.”

In the weeks ahead, the budget negotiations between the House and Senate will be making budget decisions.

“You will see a lot of moving parts. The House and Senate collectively sit down to negotiate the budget,” she said. “It is my hope that we will be successful this year.”

Bracy has been a staunch supporter of educating residents about African American history and had pushed for reparations for descendants of victims of the Ocoee massacre of 1920.

Though he has been unsuccessful in getting reparations approved, Bracy was instrumental last year in pushing legislation to require the state’s African American History Task Force “to examine ways in which the history of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Riots will be included in instruction on African American history.” Those recommendation are due this month, according to the bill.

In a separate move, Bracy also is pushing for Valencia College, a public community college in Orange and Osceola counties, to produce a feature film “depicting the tragic events” of the Ocoee riots.

Bracy filed what’s called a “Local Funding Initiative Request” to get a $1 million project into the 2021-22 state budget, legislative records show. The project is called “July in November: The story of the 1920 Ocoee election day riots.”

That project also has made it into the state Senate’s proposed 2021-22 state budget, but the amount is not $1 million. It is listed as $400,000 in the proposed budget document. That $400,000 is not listed in the proposed state House budget, so the budget item will have to be negotiated.

Robert Hickey is the grandson of Ocoee massacre survivors, according to the Orange County Regional History Center, which posted a video interview of Hickey describing the challenges his grandparents faced following the events in Ocoee.

The two-day riot, which took place in the Orange County town of Ocoee, involved the lynching of Julius “July” Perry, a wealthy Black man. Ku Klux Klan members were furious about Perry’s attempt to vote in a presidential election and he encouraged others to vote in the black community.

Other African American residents in the town were slaughtered or forced to flee their homes, leaving behind land holdings, now worth millions, that were acquired by the state.

Hickey’s grandfather — John Hickey — owned a plot of land in Ocoee where he lived with his wife Lucy Solonia Lott, according to the center. They fled to Apopka after the massacre.

“They fled to the swamps and hid out in stomp holes,” Hickey said in a Facebook video.

“Just imagine how gruesome that must be in as soggy swamp. But to save their lives, that’s what they did.”