One hundred years ago, the night before Election Day 1920, the Ku Klux Klan marched through the streets of black neighborhoods in Ocoee, a small town northwest of Orlando, warning residents against casting their ballots.
Some black voters, including Julius "July" Perry — a husband, father, and prominent community leader — showed up anyway and were threatened by white enforcers or dismissed by poll workers. Perry and another man, Mose Norman, made several attempts to vote that day and were turned away. Seeking legal recourse, Norman rode off to Orlando to talk to a judge, which enraged the whites at the polls. An angry mob rioted and killed dozens of black Ocoee residents and set fire to businesses, homes, and churches. Perry survived a gunshot wound and was arrested. The next morning, he was found lynched, his body hanging from a light pole. No one was ever arrested for his murder, and only the NAACP investigated the riots and deaths.
Now a Florida state senator has filed a bill that proposes to set up a compensation fund for descendants of the people killed, hurt, or otherwise victimized by the deadly Ocoee Election Day riots. Introduced last month by state Sen. Randolph Bracy, whose district includes parts of Orange County, the bill would award up to $150,000 to the descendants of each person who was killed or hurt.
"What makes the bill significant is the light it sheds on history," Bracy tells New Times in an email. "One of the catalysts for the gruesome massacre in Ocoee was to steal land from black landowners, which stripped away families' generational wealth. Because law enforcement and the government were complicit in the taking of land, they created the legal and authority structure that allowed for these atrocities."
Bracy introduced a separate bill last September that directs the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the massacre and report its findings to the Legislature. That bill would also appropriate $10 million for descendants of victims. Those who are eligible to apply for compensation are required to submit applications by December 31.
The latest bill, filed in December, says the state Department of Legal Affairs will accept and process applications from descendants, who need to include the name of the victim for whom the applicant is seeking compensation and prove lineage using U.S. Census records or other records. Once claims for compensation are verified and approved, descendants could receive up to $150,000.
"If multiple descendants of a single individual apply for compensation on behalf of that individual, the amount of compensation shall be prorated among any eligible claimants," the bill reads. "A descendant may not receive compensation for more than one individual."
The bill also directs the Florida education commissioner's African American History Task Force to look into how the Ocoee riots can be included in black history lessons in schools.
"The local incident in Ocoee speaks to the larger American story of state-sanctioned discrimination that has created a stubbornly persistent racial wealth gap," Bracy says. "My hope for this bill is that it provides a first step toward healing while paving a healthy path forward to racial reconciliation."
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