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History center: Ocoee exhibit dives into Election Day 1920 massacre and how it relates today

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 10/14/2020 By Dewayne Bevil, Orlando Sentinel
a man holding a sign: Orlando resident Larry Hogan studies the large photograph and text at The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 exhibit inside the Orange County Regional History Center. © Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Orlando resident Larry Hogan studies the large photograph and text at The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 exhibit inside the Orange County Regional History Center.

“Yesterday, This Was Home,” a new exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center, is a detailed look at the Ocoee massacre of 1920. It includes documentation, photos and relics of the era and the event, which was spurred after a Black man tried to vote in a presidential election.

Mose Norman was the man who was turned away from the polls. Later that night, armed white men went to the Ocoee home of July Perry, in an effort to find Norman. There was shooting, Perry received medical attention and was taken into custody. A mob broke him out of the Orange County jail in downtown Orlando. Perry was eventually lynched, and his body was hung in public view.

a room that has a sign on the screen: Entrance to \"Yesterday, This Was Home,\" an exhibit created by the Orange County Regional History Center to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ocoee massacre, which is considered the biggest Election Day violence in U.S. history. © Dewayne Bevil / Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Entrance to \"Yesterday, This Was Home,\" an exhibit created by the Orange County Regional History Center to mark the 100th anniversary of the Ocoee massacre, which is considered the biggest Election Day violence in U.S. history.

Other Ocoee citizens were murdered, and homes and other structures were burned to the ground. The number of dead is unclear, due to incomplete and altered records.

Orlando resident Larry Hogan uses the touch screen to answer a question at The Ocoee Massacre 1920 exhibit inside the Orange County Regional History Center. © Willie J. Allen Jr. / Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Orlando resident Larry Hogan uses the touch screen to answer a question at The Ocoee Massacre 1920 exhibit inside the Orange County Regional History Center.

It is considered the largest incident of Election Day violence in United States history.

The destruction and aftermath are examined in the exhibit. Voices from today telling the stories of their ancestors are incorporated.

Here are five things to know before you go to “Yesterday, This Was Home,” which will be at the history center through Feb. 14.

Take the time

The story starts centuries before the Ocoee massacre when slavery was introduced to the U.S., and the exhibit’s timeline continues into the past century to present time.

There’s a lot of reading and facts to absorb. After about an hour, I was about halfway through the exhibit, so set aside a sizable window for a visit. It’s not an exhibit to breeze through.

The historic items on display aren’t large, and many are documents or books (there are foot shackles early on). Dramatically enlarged photos illustrate the story, along with video demonstrations.

Sensitive spots

I’ve seen enough lynching photos to know I don’t need to see many more. I was grateful that the most brutal images were contained in a partially enclosed area within the exhibit and were not oversized. That space also contains sensitive items including a picture of blackface performers and a full-out Ku Klux Klan robe encased in a corner.

a stack of flyers on a table: Two voter registration ledgers and a ballot box from the period on display at The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center. © Willie J. Allen Jr. / Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Two voter registration ledgers and a ballot box from the period on display at The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center.

Cold, hard facts

As a student, my takeaway about race relations from slavery forward was how physically and mentally violent it was. Later, I became more aware of the systemic — that word pops up a lot in the exhibit — nature of it, with the cards legally and repeatedly stacked against Blacks. The examples in the Ocoee exhibit made me think about how aggressive and pervasive those systemic efforts were. A century later, and voter suppression is still in the news.

a room that has a sign on a wall: In \"Yesterday, This Was Home,\" a new exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center, events before the Ocoee massacre of 1920 are included. Photo enlargements show prisoners put to work and as well as a section on Mary McLeod Bethune near an explanation of whitecapping. © Dewayne Bevil / Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS In \"Yesterday, This Was Home,\" a new exhibit at the Orange County Regional History Center, events before the Ocoee massacre of 1920 are included. Photo enlargements show prisoners put to work and as well as a section on Mary McLeod Bethune near an explanation of whitecapping.

Occasionally, you’ll hear “Oh, Florida isn’t really in the South,” as if that magically means that things were better here. A map in the exhibit rattles that thinking: Our state recorded the most lynchings per capita of anywhere in the U.S. between 1890 and 1917.

Devilish details

Amid all the type, don’t skip the wall of footnotes just after the Ocoee story begins in the exhibit. It’s a visual demonstration of conflicting information and also of the detailed work the history center put into the exhibit. The screen there connects to sources of the information, including documents, newspaper articles and the testimony of descendants.

a man standing in a room: The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 exhibit tells a tale of a Black man trying to vote and the aftermath of his decision at the Orange County Regional History Center. © Willie J. Allen Jr. / Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 exhibit tells a tale of a Black man trying to vote and the aftermath of his decision at the Orange County Regional History Center.

For instance, how many armed white men came to Perry’s house? Three deputies? 100? 200 from Winter Garden? 500 from Orlando and surrounding areas? “Several hundred”? Members of the Ku Klux Klan? “Drunk and dressed in World War I uniforms”? There’s sourcing that supports each of those.

Black Americans in some places had to guess the exact number of marbles in a jar or be denied the privilege of voting. The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 exhibit is currently on display at the Orange County Regional History Center. © Willie J. Allen Jr./Orlando Sentinel/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Black Americans in some places had to guess the exact number of marbles in a jar or be denied the privilege of voting. The Ocoee Massacre of 1920 exhibit is currently on display at the Orange County Regional History Center.

This “Searching Sources for the Truth” wall presents dozens of notations. It’s easy to see, given the communications network of the time, how word-of-mouth details would vary but also how people with agendas could exaggerate or lie. Imagine if there were Twitter in 1920 or #Fakenews claims.

A touch screen on the footnotes wall allows visitors to click through to the sources posted.

Hands and feet

The exhibit has some hands-on activities. One kiosk presents a civics test, which has been a requirement for voting at times. I got the first four questions right but messed up the fifth by hastily mixing up the number of Florida’s counties with the number of its congressional districts. Therefore, I was virtually rejected from voting, and that ticked me off until I remembered “Oh, this happened in real life to someone.”

Another interesting screen shows the Ocoee land ownership by Blacks throughout the years. It essentially evaporates in the years following the 1920 massacre and stays that way for decades. The exhibit spells out how that happened.

There are sanitizer stands near the screens, part of the history center’s reopening plan during the coronavirus pandemic. The exhibit also has a one-way flow to it, which is marked throughout the museum. The center is has extended hours to assist with social distancing. For the run of the exhibit, the center will be open from 10 a.m.-7 p.m., four more hours than usual. On Thursdays, it will be open 10 a.m.-9 p.m., instead of its usual 5 p.m. closing time.

For more information, go to thehistorycenter.org.

Email me at dbevil@orlandosentinel.com. Want more theme park news? Subscribe to the Theme Park Rangers newsletter at orlandosentinel.com/newsletters or the Theme Park Rangers podcast at orlandosentinel.com/travel/attractions/theme-park-rangers-podcast.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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