“Misrepresenting historical events can have detrimental effects on the community's reconciliation work.”
By now, you’ve no doubt heard that Florida’s State Board of Education approved new benchmark standards for teaching middle- and high-school students about Black history.
As the headline-grabber that Florida students will learn that slavery provided a “benefit” to the enslaved by functioning as a kind of jobs training program reverberated nationally, condemnation was swift and severe. Even Black Republicans lined up to blast Gov. Ron DeSantis for soft-pedaling slavery's monstrosities.
Here, at VoxPopuli, we wanted to examine the other standard generating criticism: the idea that Black people caught up in the race riots and massacres of the early 1900s and 1920s were equally responsible for “perpetuating,” the violence that angry white mobs, often fueled by rumors of Black men raping white women and propelled by erroneous news reports, carried out against them.
We talked with nine Ocoee leaders about how this false narrative could impact the teaching of the 1920 Election Day Massacre in Ocoee — “the largest incident of voting-day violence in United States history,” and we asked about what effects, if any, that may have on the work the city’s done to reconcile with its past as a sundown town and its ongoing efforts to become a more inclusive city.
Here’s what they told us.
Ages L. Hart, Jr., Ocoee City Commissioner, District 4
Hart is a pastor, pharmacist and liaison to Ocoee’s Human Relations Diversity Board
The idea that enslaved people benefitted from their oppression is offensive. Teaching that undermines the work of those who promote Black history in Florida schools, like former state Sen. Randolph Bracy who sponsored the legislation requiring the Ocoee Massacre be added to the Florida curriculum. You cannot justify what happened to African Americans during slavery. Their families were destroyed, their human rights were violated, and we still feel the aftershocks of slavery in the Black community. These ideas appear to be politically motivated legislation designed to appease a vocal minority.
Statements that Black people perpetuated the violence against them are used by abusers who want to justify their actions. Those citizens feared for their lives. They had no rights or protections. This notion insults African Americans and anyone who has suffered at the hands of an abuser.
The work done by the citizens of Ocoee, which culminated in the 2020 Ocoee Day of Remembrance, is an example to the rest of the country of how to heal from a fractured past. We acknowledged the issue, apologized, and are working hard to ensure these events will never be repeated. We are teaching the next generation what happened, and, by not shying away from the truth, we can inspire lasting change. Teachers should not be handicapped by political leaders. We owe it to our ancestors and our children to tell the truth, the good and bad parts, so they will be fully equipped to make decisions to help us build a more perfect union.
Francina Boykin, Historian, Ocoee Massacre Project
Boykin was a member of Democracy Forum, which did the earliest research on the Ocoee Massacre in the late ‘90s, tracking down survivors and descendants of Black Ocoee residents who had been murdered or forced to leave town when their homes and property were razed.
I am appalled that the history is being swept under the rug. To paint the picture of Black people being the perpetrators, how can you do that? There’s evidence contradicting that from the survivors and descendants we interviewed. People like Mildred Board, whose mother, an educator in Windermere, got trapped over there when the riot started in 1920. She told stories about a guy showing up on her daddy’s porch, with his nightgown on, saying he’d been running like “a rabbit in the wind.”
Combing through the NAACP anti-lynching investigative files at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, we found a letter smuggled out in a crate of citrus that described Black people being burned out of their homes and forced to move. Some of these families and people were reluctant to talk because they were still petrified that anything they would say could bring retaliation. So this stuff about Black people started it, that’s ludicrous when we have accounts of what happened from descendants.
Melissa S. Myers, Ocoee Community Advocate
Myers is the founder of Just Write Consulting, a nonprofit organization, based at the West Oaks Mall, that provides wrap-around services, including Velma's Pantry.
I find it deeply concerning that these standards suggest Black people in Ocoee perpetuated the violence against them during the massacre. Such a portrayal not only distorts historical facts but also perpetuates harmful stereotypes and deepens the wounds of racial injustice.
The Ocoee Massacre was a horrific incident of racial violence. It is important to accurately teach and acknowledge the roles and experiences of all parties involved, without blaming the victims for the violence inflicted upon them.
Misrepresenting historical events can have detrimental effects on the community's reconciliation work. The city of Ocoee has made commendable efforts towards healing and reconciliation, but teaching inaccurate information can undermine these efforts. It is crucial to foster an environment of truth, understanding, and empathy when discussing historical events that involve racial violence. The education standards should provide a comprehensive understanding of the systemic racism and violence endured by the Black community during that time. Education should serve as a catalyst for positive change, inspiring individuals to actively engage in dismantling systemic racism and promoting reconciliation efforts. Through accurately teaching the history of the Ocoee Massacre and acknowledging the collective responsibility to address its legacy, we can strengthen the bonds within the community and foster a culture of understanding and unity.
Bill Maxwell, Fmr. Chairman, Ocoee Massacre Memorial Marker Committee
The longest serving member of Ocoee’s Human Relations Diversity Board (since 2007), Maxwell authored the city's Official Formal Apology for the "inhumane acts of terror committed against the African American community of Ocoee." He was also one of the writers on the city's Proclamation that acknowledged the 1920 atrocities 100 years after they occured. It reads in part:
“... the historical record clearly shows that African-American residents … were grievously denied their civil rights, their properties, and their very lives in a series of unlawful acts perpetrated by a white mob and governmental officials on November 1, 1920, and the following weeks simply because they tried to vote …”
Nothing could be more preposterous from an educational point of view, from a moral point of view, any way one chooses to look at it [the idea that Black people perpetuated the violence].
We presented some very widely publicized symposiums on the history of Ocoee, and nobody has ever given us anything that said, Well, you know, the Black residents rose up against the community and they incited the riot.
When did we arrive at a point that you should not, from a moral point of view, tell the truth about whatever you talk about? I don't recall a time in my existence that truth was unacceptable. I just believe that it's just digging a deeper trench of division if we inculcate this type of falsehood into the lives of our young children.
State Sen. Bruce Antone, District 41
I am just hoping that teachers will ignore that part of the standard that says that Black people perpetuated violence. The Ocoee Massacre, the Tulsa, Oklahoma Massacre, the Rosewood Massacre, and the Atlanta Riot — in those four instances, the riots started based off of rumors. Well, lemme back up. In Ocoee, a man tried to vote. Tulsa was a rumor that a Black man, I think, had raped a white lady. The same with the Atlanta Riot. Just falsehoods and dumb stuff started riots where white people burned down the entire community and killed people. Black folks would've been rightfully doing so to fight back. I just don't know how you blame the victim for perpetuating violence when folks are burning down your community, beating you up and killing people. I just think this is really absurd.
They specifically mentioned the Atlanta Race Riot in 1906, so I researched it. There are newspaper articles that said that Black men were raping white women. Then you read further, and they were in the midst of some kind of political campaign at the time, and one of the candidates published those falsehoods in the newspaper, knowing that it would stir up the people. That was going to be the dividing line between one candidate and the other.
Again, I'm just hoping teachers won't go forward and teach this. It creates a narrative that is misleading, that is false, that is inaccurate, and it minimizes all the work that the people in Ocoee put into trying to address what happened 103 years ago. I think it's intentional so as to create a narrative that softens the bigotry, the hatred, the discrimination, the mistreatment of Black folk.
I'm not saying let’s throw out the baby with the bath water. What I'm saying is there are some parts of these standards that need to be revised and, and they can tell this advisory committee or the State Board of Education to go back and make the changes. There's no sense in perpetuating inaccurate and misleading information.
State Sen. Geraldine Thompson, District 15
Florida statute requires that instruction be provided on African civilization before colonization and slavery. This focus is totally missing from the newly adopted standards. The standards should not advance the misconception that our history as a people began with slavery and not with one of the most advanced civilizations in the world.
Standards do focus on the Middle Passage, the work of abolitionists, Emancipation and Reconstruction. However, slavery is presented as a training ground where enslaved people were taught skills that they could use for their benefit. This whitewashes the brutality that occurred when families were separated by being sold off during slavery and the resulting long-term trauma still experienced by current generations.
The standards highlight those who fought for equality and democracy and totally ignore orchestrated efforts through the use of ax handles, water hoses, dogs, billy clubs and other forces that worked against them.
Instruction on the history of the Ocoee Massacre is to include a focus on acts of violence perpetrated by African Americans without any mention of the demands for voting rights which sparked the massacre of more than 30 Ocoee residents and the destruction of the entire Colored Quarters in that City. We need to go back to the drawing board with these standards.
State Rep. LaVon Bracy Davis, District 40
A longer version of this statement, included with permission by Rep. Bracy Davis, was originally published in the Orlando Sentinel.
As a freshman lawmaker and a proud resident of Ocoee, I must express my profound disappointment in the Florida State Board of Education’s decision to alter the way African American history is taught.
Altering the teaching of African American History deprives students of the opportunity to gain a comprehensive understanding of the systemic chronological account of racism and discrimination faced by Black Americans throughout the centuries. These struggles have shaped the fabric of our nation and continue to impact communities to this day.
All of this is politics. The attack on African American history, the book bans, the State Board of Education’s recent determination, the attempt in criminalizing victims of racism, the perpetuating of the narrative that there were benefits to enslavement; all of this is political. This is an attempt to push a political and perhaps even presidential agenda. And for this reason, there must be a call to action. If this pains you like this pains me, take that disgust and frustration and show up on Election Day, every single Election Day. We must use our vote as our battle axe and our voice as our sword, as this is the only way to dismantle this blatant, obvious, and intentional attack on black history.
Timothy Ayers, Chair of the Orange County Democratic Black Caucus
Ayers is a resident of Ocoee.
My maternal grandfather’s grandfather was from Kentucky. His name was Yearly Basey. His father was white, and his mother was enslaved. Essentially, what the governor did is wipe out telling the history of my ancestors. And similarly, the struggle of those who lived in Ocoee. Africans did not gain from being enslaved. They already had that knowledge. A dark day in the history of Florida.
Nate Robertson, Candidate for District 4 Commissioner
Robertson is a resident of Ocoee.
I am always concerned that history is taught historically and do not want to see people blamed for acts of violence incorrectly. The Ocoee Massacre as well as all other African-American/Black historical events should be taught with accuracy. I am deeply concerned about race relations and desire to see Ocoee continue to move forward to a more unified and diverse community.