Commissioner George Oliver III on reckoning with Ocoee's racialized past and looking to its economic future
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Commissioner George Oliver: There's work to be done to help the city heal from the Ocoee Massacre.
Growing up in 1970s Atlanta, Commissioner George Oliver III had several powerful influences on his life. On the one hand, there was his father, an ex-Marine, who was, as Oliver describes him, a “deeply prejudiced man.”
“I figured out at a young age — and my mom helped me a lot with this — that that was not what I wanted to be like. I didn’t want to dislike people just because they looked different. That didn’t make sense to me,” Oliver says.
On the other hand, there were the towering figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Men like Maynard Jackson, first Black mayor of Atlanta; Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest friend and advisor; Dr. Joseph Lowery, co-founder with King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and Andrew Young, another SCLC founder, Atlanta mayor and an Ambassador to the United Nations.
“All of these iconic African-American heroes came to my school to talk to us all the time,” recalls Oliver, now a middle-school teacher himself. “Andrew Young, I saw him all the time. He would play football with us on the sandlot.”
Beyond football, Oliver remembers when those particular men took a much-heralded trip to Japan. “It was a big deal that that these guys were leaving the city. And I’m like 12, 13 years old. Who cares why these guys are going to Japan? But to watch the results of that trip unfold left a mark on me for the rest of my life. Within five years of that trip, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Toyota, every major Japanese manufacturer moved to Atlanta. I was like Wow! How did they do that? How did they convince a whole country to start manufacturing things in this small town?
“I didn’t realize what those men were doing when they were coming to my school until I got much older. Then I realized they were preparing leaders, people to go out — not just to Atlanta, but all over the world to make an impact.”
And after 10 years in the U.S. Navy and jobs with Deloitte and Touche and the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oliver and his wife Deborah landed in Ocoee. As the first Black commissioner of the city where Black people were murdered and homes and businesses torched because a Black man attempted to vote in 1920, Oliver could not help but have an impact.
But they came near to not living in Ocoee at all.
“My wife, Deborah had heard about the Ocoee Massacre, but didn’t know much about it. I’d never heard about it. But as soon as we started telling family we were moving to Ocoee, then we started hearing the stories. My wife’s uncle said, ‘You can’t move to Ocoee.’ Her dad said ‘You can’t move to Ocoee.’ We started hearing about the Ocoee Massacre and how it was a sundown town.
They put a deposit down on a house in Maitland instead.
Still, Oliver could not let go of Ocoee. “I started thinking about the politicians who influenced my life, their bravery, and the things they had to suffer through, the change they had to make. Change never happens until people engage in change,” he says. “I told my wife, ‘I can’t move to Maitland. I heard all the stories about Ocoee, but in order for Ocoee to change, we need to be a part of that change. We don’t have to do any more than just move there, raise our children there, let our children go to school there and maybe get involved with some community activities. That’s all we’ve got to do to be a part of the change, and say we were part of the change.”
In 2015, then state Rep. Randolph Bracy, now a state Senator, urged Oliver to run for District 4 City Commissioner. He lost by 20 votes to incumbent Joel Keller. He came back in 2018 to win the seat. Now Oliver and Keller will face off again on March 9, this time with two additional challengers, to represent District 4.
I sat down with Oliver at Ocoee City Hall to talk with him about his main priorities, such as getting developers to give more back to the under-served communities in the city, making the job of city commissioner full-time, and what it might take to really heal the city after the Ocoee Massacre.
Norine Dworkin: What are the key things you’ve accomplished as city commissioner?
George Oliver III: I’ve had job fairs, created youth council programs, created and implemented the city’s first youth summer jobs program. I’ve had food giveaways, toy drives, Juneteenth celebrations. I partnered with Orange County to bring a health community program to Ocoee. I introduced the city to race diversity inclusion training.
I got directional signs put up for the African American Hallowed Ground Cemetery. A woman was out canvassing the neighborhood one day and ran across the cemetery and called me. She said, “I had no idea it was back here.” I said, “Wow. We need to put some signs up.” Within a couple of weeks, our utilities department had signs up.
I donated the rights to the name Fifty West to city’s redevelopment agency (CRA). I was sitting in my first CRA meeting, and they were talking about Fifty West and how we were going to do our CRA, and they were going to name it Fifty West, like Atlanta has SoDo. I asked, “Do we have the rights to the name Fifty West?” Nobody knew. So I went to Go Daddy, and I purchased the rights to the name Fifty West. What if we name this Fifty West, and then all of a sudden someone puts up a porno site under the name Fifty West, and now we’re synonymous with pornography? I remembered this because one of my kids was doing a project on the White House, and we put in WhiteHouse.com, and it was a pornography site. So I purchased every iteration of Fifty West, and in that same meeting I donated it to the city.
These are things they should be thinking about. There’s nothing innovative about this. It’s stuff a city commissioner should be doing. Not only that, this is what a city commissioner should be doing full-time. This is a part-time job, but we should be keeping full-time hours.
ND: Is that on your agenda for your second term if you’re re-elected?
GO: One of my goals is to bring to light how much better this city could be with full-time commissioners working full time to bring in retail economic development, social service programs, programs for veterans, all kinds of services and programs that are needed, not only in Ocoee but also West Orange County. Can you imagine what we can accomplish? Imagine the city of Ocoee leading the charge to make city commissioners full time. Imagine all the things we could accomplish if other cities piggyback and say why don’t we make our commissioners full time?
We get paid $4,000 a year. Most will tell you it’s not about the money. If you don’t want to be a city commissioner because it becomes a full-time job, stay where you’re at and let somebody else come on board who wants to do this full time. I can’t think of anything better to do with my life than be a city commissioner for the city of Ocoee, establishing brother/sister partnerships with other cities and bringing in economic development, bringing in restaurants, bringing in whatever it takes to move our city forward. I believe we can thrive when you have commissioners that are 100 percent committed to the city.
There are chamber meetings, school board meetings I need to attend. We have 7,000 students here. We’ve got overcrowding. We need to have a voice there. If I were a full-time commissioner, I’d be right there when they’re holding those meetings. I wouldn’t be at my daytime job. There's a lot we can accomplish being full-time city commissioners.
ND: Fair enough. What’s next?
GO: I want to get a dialogue started with the city leadership — commissioners and the mayor — on race, diversity and inclusion. I’ve already contacted the Florida League of Cities. Dr. Scott Paine [FLC’s director of leadership development and education and an expert on ethics and civility] and his team are ready to go. We want to leave the city, maybe go downtown and have a four-hour conversation and structure this conversation in a manner that we can then bring this conversation back to the city to our citizens. We’ve got to take the bandage off. We’ve got to let this wound of the Ocoee Massacre heal properly. There are a lot of people who are still hurting even though we had this 100-year memorialization.
ND: Does this have something to do with the speech you gave during the memorial, criticizing the city’s Human Relations Diversity Board for how they organized the event?
GO: I am that commissioner that is disrupting the status quo. I was uncomfortable with the speech, but it was something that had to be said.
ND: You were instrumental in getting the city to issue a formal apology for the Ocoee Massacre.
GO: I got elected in March 2018, and I approached the mayor in August and said, “I want a proclamation. I want this city to apologize for the Ocoee Massacre.” It was important for the city to apologize because acknowledgment begins the healing process. The Proclamation was a way to cement the apology.
ND: Eleven descendants of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre received $2.1 million in reparations from the state of Florida — $100,000 in scholarships and $2 million in direct payments. Today, Sen. Bracy introduced a bill in the Florida Legislature requesting $6,100 per person in scholarship money for descendants of the Ocoee Massacre. What else would you like to see done?
GO: I want to put together a cultural museum that will play into my idea of One Ocoee. I was talking about this to a young woman who wanted to speak to Sen. Bracy about getting funding for the museum and name it the One Ocoee Cultural Museum. You have the Orange County Regional History Center that highlights the Ocoee Massacre. That type of display should be in the city of Ocoee. It would be nice to have a cultural museum that could be used for things like cultural dance, arts and crafts, plays, museum exhibits. Then we would have a tourist attraction in Ocoee, and the highlight would be the Ocoee Massacre. Not only the Ocoee Massacre itself, but life in Ocoee before the Ocoee Massacre. What led up to the Ocoee Massacre? What happened after the Ocoee Massacre? Where are we today and what direction are we going?
A museum could tell that whole story and beyond. That’s one of the things that I will be supporting in my re-election, as well as partnering with Sen Bracy to get funding and get more attention. I think we could build a nice cultural center here in Ocoee. You get maximum impact when the museum is in the same city that the event happened in.
ND: What else is important to you?
GO: I want to start public/private partnerships with developers that come into the city. No matter what you’re developing, whether you’re building an auto repair shop or building a 180-unit townhouse community, I want to be able to have conversations from the beginning about how you are going to partner with our disenfranchised communities, such as our trailer parks, our children, our schools. Are you going to establish toy drives, food giveaways, back-to-school backpack giveaways? Whatever it is, you have to have a community partnership plan in conjunction with your development plan.
If you want to build in our city, I want you to be a part of it. Don’t just build and leave. Build and be a part of the community. Then even when you’re gone, you’ll still find the enjoyment of being part of the community.
ND: Ocoee’s city commission is by far the most diverse of the cities/towns that VoxPopuli covers. The committees and boards that help the commission do its work should also reflect the makeup of the city. Will you work to encourage more women and people of color to get involved in committees and boards?
GO: That’s something I’ve been championing since I got here. That’s one of the things I ran for office on. If you look at the city commission from 1925 up until 2018, you had a city commission that almost looked all the same. It was Caucasian men and women who sat on that board. We needed leadership that reflected the diversity in our city, and that’s one of the things I ran on in 2018. Let our diversity — our true diversity — let our leadership show that. Let it reflect that. People heard that message. And they came out and they voted. Some voted just on that alone. When it comes to our different boards, that’s another area where we need to focus on diversity. I’m talking young, old, male, female, Democrat, Republican, Independent. We should have more diversity on a lot of these boards.