PJI JOURNAL Spring/Summer 2021: A Community Faces the Past and Begins to Heal Together

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

By Rachel Allen, Director, Peace and Justice Institute 

What can happen when a community comes together with courage, truth and love to face an unspeakable history of violence, pain and trauma? Healing and transformation, a new freedom and a new sense of belonging and togetherness. Fear and shame often keep individuals from facing the past. It takes great courage to tell the truth about traumas we have perpetrated or that have been inflicted on us.

Fear tells us we will break under the weight of the pain and suffering, or we will not be believed or heard. The resilience required to recover from trauma is real, as are the consequences of keeping it buried.

Individual recovery is a microcosm for a city, state or country. Recovery from historic harms perpetrated by Whites on the Black residents of the village of Ocoee in 1920 would take a commitment to truth and an ethos of love. It would require courage to hear the stories of violence, loss and suffering from descendants of the massacre — realizing that, with impunity at the hands of a deputized group of White men, Black lives were taken, families divided, homes burned. A cruel culture of white supremacy allowed the massacre to be hidden as Black owned properties were sold, the census turned white and the stories buried for over half a century. The collective perseverance of our community to face its history and honor the 100-year remembrance of the Ocoee Massacre has been awesome and transformative. And it did not happen overnight.

Almost 25 years ago a small group of individuals from the Unitarian Church in Orlando, a group which became the Democracy Forum, heard rumors of the tragic history of Ocoee and began to research the stories that were whispered in the shadows. Black people knew Ocoee was no place to be seen after dark — a sundown town — but now over a half a century later, few knew the origins of the warnings. As the stories emerged, from descendants, the census, land plots, historians, images and newspaper articles, fear and defense set in — denial. How could it be true? Surely this was exaggeration and hyperbole. Yet the more people learned, the more real the story became.

Lynching in America was a “missing history,” buried with memories of families, and missing from our textbooks and stories of who we really are as a nation. Yet lynchings, defined as racial killing with impunity, mob rule, white supremacy and KKK intimidation are the reality of our history — a reality we must continue to face if we are to heal the fabric of our humanity.

In 2015, two decades after Democracy Forum began its work on the Ocoee Massacre, and the same year the Equal Justice Initiative out of Montgomery, Alabama began work on lynching in America, the Alliance for Truth and Justice was formed locally to further face this “missing history.” Only one lynching was documented in the Ocoee violence, that of Julius “July” Perry who was hung by a rope for attempting to vote. An unknown number of others also lost their lives on November 2, 1920, and the day after.

As the stories of descendants emerged to verify and fill in the gaps of those ill-fated days in Ocoee, more truth was uncovered. Leaders from Ocoee moved past decades of resistance, opened their hearts and took the time to learn about and accept their history. Denial is a common human response to unspeakable tragedy. Many still deny the cruelty of white supremacy — and yet until this truth is faced, healing cannot occur.

Slowly but surely the truth began to settle in, for some more easily than others. In 1920 a massacre took place, with a mob of White deputized men killing Black residents from the unincorporated township of Ocoee, destroying a thriving Black community in order to maintain power and control.

And 100 years later, the collective impact of facing the solemn history of Ocoee is truly inspiring.

In our region, a decision was made, one person, family and community at a time, to face the past and move toward truth and reconciliation. The process has taken years and will continue for years to come. And yet the foundation of truth that has been laid is solid and built on the work of hundreds of individuals including journalists, historians, scholars, descendants, artists, citizen activists and elected officials. An overriding grace has guided the work to nourish and sustain it.

No individual life, family or community is without pain and suffering, or perhaps even trauma. Our community has demonstrated the courage to move beyond shame, to tell the truth, and create a possibility for love and unity to emerge.

This work continues. A community-wide effort has begun to memorialize the Ocoee Massacre with a monument.

Thank you to every individual for every action you took to move this community toward peace and justice.

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