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Building Unity Park, Ocoee continues to reconcile its past, embrace diversity

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

“I’m hoping that we can get to the point where color is not an issue, gender is not an issue, culture is not an issue. All we see is a big, unified city.”

Unity Park
"It's a good way to honor and remember" those who perished in the Ocoee Massaacre, Brad Lomneck, a Parks and Recreation board member said of Unity Park, which opens Tuesday. Photo: City of Ocoee

Ocoee has come so far.

For decades “the center of good living” was not a place for Black people to live. The 1920 Election Day Massacre fueled by white fury that a Black man, Mose Norman, tried to vote, had nearly wiped out the town’s Black population.

By the time it was over, Julius “July” Perry, who had been registering Black people to vote, had been lynched. His body, according to the Orlando Sentinel, was left hanging in front of the Orlando home of the federal judge who had advised him and Norman on voting rights. There were 30 more dead in Ocoee, 25 homes, two churches and a fraternal lodge were torched, and more than 200 Black men, women and children had fled the town in fear for their lives. The Orlando Sentinel reported that World War I veterans were recruited to ensure they didn’t come back.

For years afterward, Ocoee was known as a sundown town. Samuel T. Salisbury, who led the Election Day mob, was elected mayor twice in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Black people began slowly returning to the area. Today Ocoee is more than 21 percent Black.

The city has made strides in acknowledging and reconciling its past — a proclamation, an official apology, annual commemorations of the massacre victims, starting with the 100th year remembrance in 2020, dialogue with descendants of survivors. Officials talk about Ocoee today as a “sunrise” city.

The newest symbol of the city’s reconciliation efforts and embrace of diversity is the five-acre Unity Park, in the heart of Ocoee’s downtown at 130 N. Cumberland Ave. Landscaped with native plants and designed with a boardwalk and walking path, Unity Park masks its more utilitarian function: holding and naturally filtering stormwater before it flows to Starke Lake.

The official ribbon-cutting ceremony takes place Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 10:30 a.m. The event will also note the city’s 100th anniversary as a municipality. (Ocoee became a city in 1925.)

A still-to-be-completed memorial, listing the 263 names of the Black citizens who were murdered or fled during the Election Day violence — pulled from the 1920 Census — will be installed at a later date. The design is still being finalized, Ginger Corless, deputy development services director told VoxPopuli.

“It’s off the street. It’s quiet and reflective,” Brad Lomneck, a member of Ocoee’s Parks and Recreation Board, said of the park in a phone interview. “It’s a good way to honor and remember. We need to remember every year.”

“I’m hoping that we can get to the point where color is not an issue, gender is not an issue, culture is not an issue. All we see is a big, unified city,” City Commissioner Ages Hart said in a phone interview. As a child himself, he recalls being warned by his father to stay out of Ocoee. Today, representing Ocoee's District 4, he hopes Unity Park can serve “as an example to move forward.”

“Don’t let people tell you who you are, show them who you are,” Hart said. “And that’s what we need to do. We need to show the world who Ocoee is, and this is one of the steps,”

Unity Park
Mayor Rusty Johnson: "Unity means we all come together and work together and do the things we're supposed to do for all people." Photo: City of Ocoee

It was Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson, hearing the word unity bandied around in diversity meetings, who named the park.

“Everybody's got different thoughts on what unity is, I guess,” Johnson said in an interview. “But my thought process is unity means we all come together and work together and do the things we're supposed to do for all people.

“I want it to be where people understand that we do know and understand what happened,” the mayor said, referring to the Election Day violence.

“We all should have the understanding. You can have your opinion about things, but when it comes to this thing, that doesn't need to be that way," he said. "I heard that when we did our first 100-year deal. I heard it then; I heard it again; then I heard it again. And every time I heard that, I kept thinking to myself, Well, then let's all do this together and come up with what I think will be a great place where you can bring kids from the school and show them … It’ll be there that we can let people know. Just like kids, they're gonna ask you what it is, and then you can explain it.”


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