I grew up drinking from “Whites Only” water fountains and using “Whites Only” restrooms. During seventh and eighth grades I rode the city bus to and from school, oblivious of black women and men who stood in the back while I sat. I used the public library, which I’ve learned from John Lewis’s experience, probably didn’t lend books to African Americans in my community.
I grew up in Orlando before Disney, when it was a sleepy southern town. People have told me that Florida isn’t really the South. They picture retirees and the influx of northerners wanting to work in an agreeable climate.
In 1949, thirty miles west of Orlando, four young black men were hunted down by the sheriff and the KKK when a seventeen-year-old girl claimed she’d been raped. The whole black community was terrorized, the homes of many burned to the ground. The four young men became known as the Groveland Boys. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, by Gilbert King, tell the horrifying story.
During a recent visit to the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL, I walked among the hanging steel columns honoring black lives taken by lynching and violence. I found the column representing Orange County, Florida. There were 34 victims, 32 of them from one night, November 2, 1920. I went to google.
I had never heard of the Ocoee Massacre. November 2 was election day. Ocoee African Americans, denied the franchise since the turn of the century, had prepared to vote. A white mob set out in search of Mose Norman, a key organizer. By the time the day was over, whites had demolished the homes of north Ocoee’s black community. This happened about 20 miles from Orlando. From 1877-1950, I learned, “Florida ranked third in the nation, with 331 lynchings” (https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/breaking-news/os-lynchings-report-orange-county-20150211-story.html).
The Groveland Boys, the Ocoee Massacre? Events in Florida history I’d never heard of.
On the recommendation of a friend, I’ve started reading Paul Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed: the Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.
If violent racism is a determining factor in whether a state is southern, Florida certainly qualifies.
Which brings me to Black History Month. We white people get off easy by honoring MLK and Rosa Parks and the known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. I challenge white readers to delve into books that make us uncomfortable, stories that tell the truth not only about the heroes but also about the perpetrators of racial violence. Our kin.