Tuesday, November 9, 2021
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lydia Chagoll
Tuesday marks the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht or the November Pogrom, the Nazi's systematic destruction of Jewish property and expulsion of Jews. 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Here, men from Baden-Baden are paraded through the streets to a synagogue to watch it burn before being deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
I was scrolling through the Ocoee Rants Raves and Reviews Facebook group last week when I came across this exchange on a thread announcing the event lineup for this past weekend’s Ocoee Remembers commemoration for the 101st anniversary of the Ocoee Massacre.
Give me a break. I’m tired of this politically correct nonsense. Remembering the Ocoee Massacre. What’s next, remembering when English settlers came and slaughtered the Seminoles and took their land? … Is it not enough that Founders Day has been renamed to the fall Music Festival? Enough is enough!
Me, too, _____.
I hope no one goes. Lol.
Let the shit go and be glad you weren’t a part of it.
That this exchange unfolded at all is a clear indication that many more commemoration events are needed to help Ocoee residents reconcile the town’s past. Let’s be clear: when a town purges its entire Black population within 48 hours, in what’s been described as the “deadliest episode of Election Day racial violence in U.S. history”; tells its white population never to talk about it; then sits on the secret for 100 years; a one-and-done anniversary event doesn’t come close to “enough.”
For anyone unfamiliar with events that Nov. 2 in 1920, a white mob lynched a Black man, Julius “July” Perry, one of the town’s most successful businessmen, because they believed he was harboring his friend, Mose Norman, another Black man, who had tried to exercise his legal right to vote the day before.
The vengeful mob rampaged through town, killing an estimated 50 of their Black neighbors and dumping many of their bodies in Starke Lake. The mob chased the rest of the town’s Black population from their homes, their businesses, their lands. Overnight Ocoee’s Black population vanished — some into the swamps, some to other cities, some it’s a mystery. A month later the Orlando Sentinel ran an ad for “Several Beautiful Little Groves Belonging to the Negroes That Have Just Left Ocoee.” (Italics mine.) Not slaughtered. Not driven away in fear. "Just left," as if they'd simply decided — en masse — that a better future lay elsewhere. Whites scooped up the abandoned properties at bargain prices.
Although Ocoee remained a “sundown town” where Black people weren’t safe after dark for decades (Black people did not start returning to Ocoee until the 1970s), the violence wasn’t isolated. It was bookended by 1919’s Red Summer — when Black American WWI veterans came home, hoping to be rewarded for their service to their country and found white America prepared to lynch and riot to return to the pre-war status quo — as well as massacres in Tulsa (1921) and Rosewood, Fla. (1923).
In Russia, where my people come from, they have another word for this kind of systematic terror against a particular group of people: pogrom. If you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof, the wedding scene where everything gets smashed and the state police destroy the village, driving the Jews out, that’s a pogrom.
I’ve been thinking about the Ocoee Massacre in the context of marking another painful anniversary today — the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass. Some also call it the November Pogrom, which is a fitting descriptor for Ocoee’s atrocity as well.
On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, the Nazis ordered mass attacks on Jewish people and property throughout Germany and Austria. Windows of Jewish businesses and homes were smashed and items looted; synagogues burned, religious items destroyed; people brutalized and murdered. Thirty thousand Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. It was meant to look like spontaneous street violence in response to the murder of a low-level diplomat by a 17-year-old Jewish Polish boy. But the attacks were well orchestrated and local authorities were told only to interfere if German property was in danger.
Kristallnacht signaled a pronounced escalation in anti-Jewish violence and legislation meant to terrorize Jews and drive them from Germany and its territories, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s considered the actual start of the Holocaust.
Growing up, Kristallnacht and the Holocaust were frequent topics of conversation in my Hebrew school, at synagogue, in youth group, at home. But though I was raised in Florida, I, like most people, had never heard about Ocoee’s Massacre until last year’s 100th anniversary.
After the Holocaust, Jews around the world vowed “Never again.” Germany made that phrase, along with Holocaust remembrance and a national reckoning of its crimes against humanity key elements of its post-WWII political identity. On Sunday, several speakers used “Never again” at Ocoee Remembers events. You need to know what came before to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“I had a great-grandmother who was 103, and she told me a lot of history,” Rhonda Anderson-Robinson, chair of Ocoee’s Human Relations Diversity Board told me during Sunday night’s program. Anderson-Robinson is a descendant of the Rosewood Massacre. “I’ve heard some of the stories,” she said. “You can’t imagine sitting in your house and somebody knocks on your door and says, We got to get out now! Go! No reason, no rhyme. just Go! You just can’t imagine.”
No, we can’t. What would you grab? Where would you run? Who would you trust? It’s impossible to fathom.
I asked Keith Tower, pastor of HighPoint Church in Ocoee, one of the organizers of Ocoee Remembers, what message he had for people in Ocoee who are annoyed that we are again commemorating the 1920 events when the city did it last year.
“It matters because it changed our city, it transformed our community, it was part of an ugly moment in our American history and it was hurtful to people,” Tower said. “And in the same way that we commemorate, and need to every year, the events of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor — those just happen to be events that we lived through, so they’re important to us — if we don’t commemorate them, they won’t be important in a generation. So it matters.”
True enough. As diligent as Germany was in confronting its past, as survivors and descendants die, so too will the memories. The BBC reported that a right-wing German political party has suggested that it’s time to move on from the culture of commemoration while a recent survey by Germany’s Korber Foundation, a nonprofit political organization, found that not even half of German 14- to 16-year-olds knew what Auschwitz was.
Thanks to the HBO series The Watchmen, America now knows the story of Tulsa. And thanks to Sen. Randolph Bracy, Florida students will get an education about Ocoee’s homegrown pogrom.
And each year, we here in West Orange should tell the story of Ocoee, much the way Jews recount the exodus from Egypt during the Passover seder. We’ll read the names of the dead and displaced and we’ll honor the descendants. Perhaps we’ll make that silent candle-lit walk to Ocoee Christian Church, a small white church in what was in 1920 the white part of town, that harbored terrified Blacks fleeing the mob. The Klan surrounded the church, firing into it. But the people did not yield.
The State of Israel describes non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews from extermination during the Holocaust as Righteous Among Nations. The good people of Christian Church are certainly among the Righteous.
As are the people working tirelessly today to help Ocoee heal.
“Some people want that; some may not. But we’re not looking to convince everybody in our city,” said Pastor Tower. “What we’re looking to do is build relationships. Over time, over meals, over conversations in coffee shops, we have a chance to build friendships. And if we build friendships, we have a chance of loving people who are not like ourselves. And if we can do that, I think the world will be a better place.”
Such a righteous idea.