The Ocoee Massacre affects all of us, even a century later. Yet it is the families of the victims who have survived in the most difficult circumstances. They continue to demonstrate their resilience and exert influence through their voices and actions. ATJ is pleased to partner with these strong individuals in our collective efforts toward reconciliation.
Camilla Wilson Barnes and her husband George Barnes live in Deltona, Florida. She is a descendant of Jackson (Jack) Hamiter, who was originally from Alabama and settled in Ocoee, Florida, at the end of the 19th century in search of better opportunities. He and his wife Annie were survivors of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre. To escape the violence, they were forced to abandon their home, orange groves, and other properties and relocate to Sanford, FL.
Mrs. Barnes’s early career was in the fields of computer technology and telecommunications. She worked for BellSouth for 17 years as a technician in installation and maintenance, as well as in computer operations and administration. During this period, Mrs. Barnes, a licensed cosmetologist, also operated several hair salons and a beauty supply store in the area. After retiring from BellSouth, Mrs. Barnes pursued university study and developed a career in education and entrepreneurship.
Camilla Barnes studied both political science and public administration for her B.A. degree at Bethune Cookman College. She later received an MBA from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. For over nine years, Mrs. Barnes was a teacher at Seminole High School in Sanford, where she taught a wide range of subjects including math, biology, business education, African American history, Vietnam war history, and world culture and geography. She also served as a substitute teacher in math at the Millenium Middle School. Mr. Barnes was also employed by the Seminole County School system and retired after 26 years.
In 2005, Camilla and George Barnes opened their own tutoring business, A Time 2 Learn and Five Star Learning. They contracted with departments of education in Florida, South Carolina, and Oklahoma, to offer their tutoring services. This effort eventually encompassed tutorial programs in 67 school districts of Florida and 55 in South Carolina. The Barneses’ subsequent endeavor, the nonprofit organization Passage 2 Dignity Program and Service, helped to enhance students’ math, reading, writing, and oral communication skills. Their commitment has been to uplift youth and give them a greater sense of direction and control over their lives by combatting negative choices through goal setting and planning for the future.
Mrs. Barnes has long been actively involved in community activities, serving as Board Chairman of the former Tajiri Arts School in Sanford. Known as a speaker and an entrepreneur, her services there included teaching students in Tajiri School’s Entrepreneurship Program how to start and operate their own businesses. She carried out a similar program at the Grove Counseling Center. Mrs. Barnes also served as Chairman of the historic Goldsboro community in Sanford.
Over the years Camilla and George Barnes have always tried to extend a helping hand at their church and in their neighborhood to those who wanted to start businesses or apply for 501c-3s. They have also adopted and cared for many children from their wider family, as well as for children in the neighborhood. They are known as Auntie Camilla and Uncle George in their community. Mrs. Barnes shared her philosophy in these words: “My family are strong lovers of people who have believed in unity and support…[this] was instilled in me at a very young age.”
Currently, Mrs. Barnes is actively researching her family tree and communicating with other family members as she pursues this research, a task which she thoroughly enjoys.
Ms. Gladys Bell is the daughter of Richard Allen Franks and Irma Morgan Franks. Her father was the nephew of July Perry. Her grandfather, Daniel Richard Franks, and her great uncle, July Perry, married two sisters. Her paternal grandmother, one of the two sisters, was named Carrie Betsy Franks.
Ms. Bell’s father, Richard Franks, was a survivor of the Ocoee Massacre of 1920. Stories of her father’s life were shared with the family around the dinner table and throughout the community. These stories were the basis of a book Ms. Bell authored in 2020—Visions Through My Father’s Eyes: The Ocoee Election Massacre.
As described in her book, Ms. Bell’s father was an exceptional man in many ways. Mr. Franks survived the Ocoee massacre and destruction of his family’s community by literally carrying his six children, hand in hand (including one who was a paraplegic, on his back) through swamps and dangerous woods to a new town called Plymouth, FL. He worked hard in the citrus industry and saved his money so that he could buy rental properties and provide a good life for his family. His other great strength was his character and Christian spirit. He never returned bitterness toward white people, and told his children, “Regardless of what happened in Ocoee, don’t hold hate in your heart, no good comes from it.”
Ms. Bell is a native resident and community leader in Plymouth, Florida. She graduated from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and has two sons. She retired after 40 years of working for the Orange County (FL) government. Ms. Bell is very active in her community as well as at her church.
Joseph Hickey was born on Long Island, New York, on October 8, 1956, to David and Willie Mae Hickey. He is the grandson of John Hickey and Lucy Hickey of Apopka Florida, survivors of the Ocoee Voting Day Massacre.
Mr. Hickey graduated from Apopka High school in 1974 and enlisted in the United States Army in 1975. He served in the military until 1980 and then in the U.S. Justice Department. Subsequently, he worked at the U.S. Postal Service until his retirement in 1998. Mr. Hickey never met his grandfather John Hickey, who died in 1955. His grandmother Lucy Hickey and great-grandmother Annie Brockington would come and stay with his family in New York at their home in Long Island almost every spring and summer. Mr. Hickey recounts his early life experience:
“My immediate family of 10 siblings and parents would have dinner at 6:00 p.m. At the dining table we discussed family concerns and current events in the neighborhood. Every morning we would eat breakfast together before we left to go to school or work. My parents were educators and pastors. My father was a successful Master electrician and business owner. He became a pastor in a local church and a bishop, and my mother was a successful Sunday school teacher. She received an honorary Doctor of Divinity. In addition to being a homemaker, my mother was an advocate for civil rights and a counselor to many local groups in Florida and across the United States.
My childhood was simply normal growing up, in Long Island, New York. I did not know anything about the 1920 massacre that my grandparents had to endure. I lived with my grandmother Lucy Hickey in Apopka and graduated from Apopka High school in 1973. Never once did she mention anything about that period of the 1920s. I enjoyed the fact that at her place I could go behind the house after baseball or football practice and pick an orange or tangerine anytime I liked. I also liked it when I would come home from school and sit on the porch, talking with my grandmother. We would talk for hours on the weekend, and she would take me to the local church in the neighborhood. I loved spending time with my grandmother, and in later years I missed those days. She left this earth in 1990 and she will be forever in my heart.
February 26, 2019, my brother Robert did an interview with Jeffrey Corvera at the University of Central Florida. Much more was revealed about my grandfather, John Hickey, and his experience, particularly from his time in Ocoee.
My wife Velma and I now live in Kissimmee, Florida. We have five children and five grands that will be given information about the history of their great-grandparents as it is revealed.”
John Hickey was born March 1, 1871, in Moultrie, Georgia. Lucy Silonia Lott was born April 3, 1894, in Sneads, Florida. The couple had six children together in addition to his children from a previous marriage. The Hickey family was prosperous. John Hickey was industrious, working in the lumbering business, distilling turpentine, running a delivery business, and buying and selling property.
One of Hickey’s properties was a citrus grove in Apopka, which is where they resettled after they fled the Ocoee Massacre. He built a home in the grove along with several other smaller houses that he rented to migrant workers who came in to pick citrus or work on the muck. Their grandson, Robert Hickey, brother of Joseph Hickey, grew up in that home, not realizing how much the family had lost until he conducted his own research decades later. According to Robert Hickey his grandfather lost over a hundred acres, which he believed was more land lost than any other family as a result of the Ocoee Massacre.
“And then to read about John Hickey and his holdings. There’s an area in Ocoee right now, they still sometimes refer to it as Hickey Subdivision. And it’s like three blocks or more where he had this property that he had divided up to more than 50 different parcels for sale. I don’t know if he was gonna sell it all or if he was going to do some development. But it seems like he had some grand plans. And that made me real proud…that he was thinking like that.”
*(Oral History, Robert Hickey, February 26, 2019.)
Dr. John Lee Peterson, Jr. is a native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is married with seven children and seven grandchildren. He and his wife, Adrian, live in Georgia. Dr. Peterson is the great-grandson of Valentine and Jane Hightower, survivors of the Ocoee Voting Day Massacre of 1920, who fled to south Florida after the tragic events. His parents were Robbie Williams and John Lee Peterson, Sr. Dr. Peterson’s mother is a descendant of the Hightowers through their daughter Oloqueen.*
After serving for 13 years in the United States Army, where Dr. Peterson received several distinguished awards, he then served as senior pastor of Chosen Generation Ministries in Opa-locka, Florida for 16 years.
Dr. Peterson received his higher education at St. Thomas University in Miami, where he earned a B.S. degree in Human Resource Management, with a Minor in Elementary Education, and an M.S. in Special Education and Educational Leadership. He later attended Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, where he earned his doctorate in Organizational Leadership and Conflict Resolution. Dr. Peterson is the author of Managing the Storms of Inner and Outer Conflict: A Guide for Black Males in Resolving Conflict.
Dr. Peterson is an author, educator, and international consultant, who has served in both private and public education. For several years, Dr. Peterson was the Principal of Chosen Generation Academy in Opa-locka, and he also served as a Special Education teacher and Behavior Specialist in Broward and Miami-Dade County Public Schools. He is currently an Assistant Principal at Rosebud Elementary School in Gwinnett County, Georgia.
Along with his responsibilities as a public school administrator, Dr. Peterson is a consultant for “Time to Teach” and an adjunct professor at Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia. He has conducted presentations both nationally and internationally in education and in conjunction with his work as President of Paradigm Empowerment Network. Over the years, Dr. Peterson has been an active member of his college fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma (founded at Howard University in 1914), in the areas of scholarship education and community social action.
*For more detailed information on Valentine and Jane Hightower and their family, see the subsequent essay related to Dr. Peterson: Ancestral History of Dr. John Lee Peterson, Jr.
My great-grandfather Valentine Hightower was born in South Carolina in 1867. As a young man, he and his friends, Mose Norman and July Perry, moved to central Florida in 1885, in hopes of more opportunities. They settled in what would become the small town of Ocoee, where they were able to buy land. Valentine Hightower married Jane (Janie) Jones in Ocoee in 1893. There were eight children from that union: three boys—John, Joseph, and Armstrong; and five daughters—Lucille, Consuella (died as a child), Oloqueen, Comanche, and Annie.
The Hightowers, Normans, and Perrys remained close to one another as Ocoee grew, and they became pillars of the Black community over the next few decades. The three families are listed as neighbors in the federal censuses of 1900, 1910, and 1920. By 1900, the Hightower family owned their farm free of mortgage. Valentine Hightower is listed in that census as a farmer, but in 1910, he is identified as a merchant in the grocery business.
At the time of the events of the Voting Day Massacre on November 2, 1920, and in the days after, my great-grandfather and his family, like the other Black families there, suffered terror and property loss. Their youngest son, Armstrong, age 13, recounted in his late years that he recalled seeing the Perry family’s barn go up in flames as he and his siblings hid in the orange groves behind their house. The Hightowers were forced to leave behind their home and prosperous business and to sell their 40 acres of land for much less than its value.*
When my great-grandfather and his family escaped the killing and pillage in Ocoee, they settled in the Fort Lauderdale area and re-built their lives. My great-grandfather worked in orange groves picking oranges to provide for his family. He managed to earn enough money to purchase a few acres of property there on Fourth Avenue. After moving to south Florida, the Hightower family suffered another tragedy. From my mother’s recollection, when her Aunt Annie was a student at Florida Memorial College in Miami, one night while she was waiting for a ride home, several white men attacked, raped, and killed her.
One of the Hightower daughters, Oloqueen (known to her family as “Queen”), was my grandmother, and the birth mother of my mother, Robbie Williams. However, because my grandmother was facing some personal problems at the time, she asked her sister Comanche to take care of my mother. Comanche married Harland Williams in Fort Lauderdale, and she and Mr. Williams adopted and raised my mother, Robbie Williams.
After finishing high school, my mother studied at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona. She received her degree in education and taught at Walker Elementary School in Ft. Lauderdale. My mother married my father, John Lee Peterson, in Ft. Lauderdale. They had six children: three of them died at birth, and three survived: Lavonia, John Jr. (myself), and Jeffery (now deceased).
My great-grandfather and two of his sons built three houses on the property, which we called “Hightower Estates.” The “Big House” located at the front of the property had been an old funeral home. This is where my great-grandfather and great-grandmother lived until their demise. There were small “shot gun” houses on the property. A house was built for the Hightower sons Joseph (Joe) and Armstrong, and my grandmother “Queen.” My Aunt Comanche and her husband, Harland Williams, built a house nearby on Fourth Avenue.
My Uncle Joe Hightower married Leila Bell. They had five children: Joann (deceased), Lucille, Sharon, Valentine, (deceased) and Anthony (deceased). Both Sharon and Lucille still reside in Fort Lauderdale. Uncle Joe would tell my mother (his niece), about some of the terrible events that occurred in connection with the Ocoee Massacre.
None of the houses on the estate had running water, electricity, or a septic tank. There was an outhouse on the property that everyone used. I spent most of my childhood at Hightower Estates. Although we lived in poverty, we were happy and blessed.
*The source for portions of this history of the Hightower family is the UCF study of Ocoee and the 1920 Voting Day Massacre. (Bending Toward Justice Phase 1: Ocoee, A Case Study (ucf.edu)
Andrea Riley is the great, great, granddaughter of Jackson and Annie Hamiter, survivors of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre. The Hamiters had relocated to Florida from Alabama toward the end of the 1800’s seeking land ownership, a chance to build generational wealth, and a better life for their three children, Rosa, Lafayette, and Hattie. The family prospered in Ocoee for over 30 years, before they were forced to leave their home and more than 12 acres of farmland and citrus groves following the tragic event. Their middle child, Lafayette, was Andrea’s great-grandfather.
Ms. Riley and husband, Clifton, are licensed ministers and co-founders of the Marriage Service Technicians. The organization’s mission is to equip relationships with tools to go the distance via workshops, conferences, podcast, blog, biblical counseling, trauma-informed healing, prayer resources, and creative events.
Ms. Riley is a producer, playwright, choreographer, dancer, actress, spoken word poet, published author, and generational trauma healing facilitator with a passion to use the arts as a pathway to healing and wholeness. She holds degrees in Entertainment Technology and Liberal Arts and Science.
Ms. Riley has been awarded numerous honors from the Art Institute of Philadelphia and Burlington County College for writing, editing, public speaking, and academic excellence.
Following the 1920 Election Day Massacre, Annie Hamiter penned a letter to the NAACP explaining what was occurring in Ocoee. The letter was smuggled out in a shipment of fruit. It currently resides in the Library of Congress and is considered a first-hand witness account of the events. This presentation is a depiction of Mrs. Hamiter through the eyes of her descendants, Andrea Riley and Patricia Rae Merritt Hitchmon Whatley (vocalist).
Mr. Kenneth Thompson’s ancestors in Ocoee were survivors of the 1920 Voting Day Massacre. His great-grandmother was Henrietta Carmichael and his great-uncle was Jake Brown. The family story passed down to him was that, by today’s standards, his ancestors on his mother’s side were quite well off. They owned orange groves, houses, and several acres of property.
At the time of the massacre, that family heritage and inheritance were taken from the Carmichael and Brown families, as they were forced to flee Ocoee in fear for their lives. They loaded everything they could on their horse and buggy and headed down the Ocoee Apopka Road (now the Michael Gladden Road) to Apopka. Mr. Thompson was born in Apopka to his parents Mabel Thompson and Curtis Jones. He grew up there and studied at Phillis Wheatley High School.
After his schooling, Mr. Thompson joined the U.S. Army and served for 22 years, receiving additional education in the military. He is a Vietnam veteran who retired as a Master Sergeant. After this service, he and his wife, Voncille, of Orlando, were small business owners of Von’s Beauty Transition, Day Spa. They lived in Orlando with their two children until they moved to Ocoee, their current and final residence.
By moving to Ocoee, decades after the deplorable events his family experienced, Mr. Thompson was returning to his family roots. He wrote, “The city welcomed us with genuine respect and acknowledged the tragic past with several reconciliatory events. These occasions were hosted by state and city officials, including the mayor, and members of the HRDB, as well as with support from a local church.”
Mrs. Patricia Rae Merritt Hitchmon Whatley is the great granddaughter of Mr. Jack Hamiter, a farmer, and Mrs. Annie Hamiter, a nurse. Their third child, Hattie Hamiter Merritt was Mrs. Whatley’s paternal grandmother, the mother of Charles Hayward Merritt, Mrs. Whatley’s father. Jack and Annie Hamiter were survivors of the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre, who escaped to Sanford, Florida, leaving behind their home, rental apartments, and orange grove properties.
Mrs. Whatley is an educator, entrepreneur, administrator, vocalist, actress, and published author. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Talladega College, Alabama, and a master’s degree in Education Administration and Supervision from Nova University, Fort Lauderdale. Among her many accomplishments, she founded and served as the Artistic Director of the Tajiri Arts School and Museum, an after-school performing arts program in Sanford. The school was named after her son, Kamili Tajiri Hitchmon, who is currently a civil engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Tajiri Arts opened its doors in October 1988, with 10 students and Mrs. Whatley as the lone instructor. Through a broad range of artistic classes, its mission was to provide students with structured, supervised activities that would raise their self-worth, prepare them for academic competence, equip them with tools for successful social interaction, and teach discipline, respect and individual responsibility through history and culture. Over the 20 years Mrs. Whatley served as director, Tajiri Arts trained more than 3,500 students, ages 3 to 17.
The remarkable journey of Mrs. Whatley’s community work and the Tajiri Arts School was chronicled in her book, From the Outhouse to the Little Red School House. She has received many awards recognizing her service in Florida, including as Seminole County Teacher of the Year and the NAACP Humanitarian Award.