When Armstrong Hightower died in 2002 at the age of 94, he had lived for more than 80 years in Fort Lauderdale. But he wasn’t born here. He came when still a child, driven out of his hometown by one of the most violent events in Jim Crow-era Florida.
Armstrong Hightower’s father, Valentine Hightower, first came to Ocoee, a town west of Orlando near the eastern bank of Lake Apopka, with a man named Julius Perry. Known as “July,” Perry would be at the center of what happened on Election Day, 1920.
To understand what would become known as the Ocoee Massacre, historians point to the time leading up to Election Day. Women – including African-American women – had recently been given the right to vote. Across the South, there were concerted efforts to register blacks to vote in the face of Jim Crow laws. Black soldiers returning from World War 1 were more vocal about no longer tolerating the second-class status imposed on them at home.
July Perry was a former soldier. According to Marvin Dunn’s excellent book A History of Florida: Through Black Eyes, he was also a successful businessman who owned property around Ocoee. His friend, Mose Norman, was a successful farmer. The pair also worked for voting rights for blacks in Central Florida. That mixture of success and activism undoubtedly made them targets.
There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened on Election Day, but it’s generally agreed that it started when Norman was turned away at his polling place. Other African-Americans also reported being turned away.
According to one account, Norman returned later with a shotgun but was beaten up and the shotgun taken. Another account has him and Perry driving to see a sympathetic judge in Orlando, who told them to go back and get the names of the poll workers who blocked Norman. What is clear is that a rumor spread among whites that armed blacks were gathering at the Perry home and planning to march to the polling station.
A group of whites surrounded the Perry home. A gun battle ensued, and two white men were killed. According to Dunn, the reports of the funeral home that received the men’s bodies stated, based on information received by the sheriff, that they were killed by other whites firing wildly into the Perry home. But that fact wouldn’t matter.
Perry eventually escaped from the house but was tracked down nearby. “Upon his arrest by Sheriff Frank Gordon,” Dunn writes, “Perry was taken to Orlando where he was jailed. Sometime after 3AM a mob dragged him out of the Orlando jail and lynched him.”
Meanwhile there was terror in northern Ocoee, as buildings in the black neighborhood were set alight and people shot. Every black resident was eventually either killed or driven from northern Ocoee. Blacks on the south side were not directly affected, but it was made clear to them that they now had to leave. Shortly after the massacre, there were no black residents left in Ocoee. Mose Norman managed to escape and lived the rest of his life in New York.
There were few witnesses to the atrocity but 81 years later a journalist found one, Armstrong Hightower, in a two-bedroom Fort Lauderdale apartment. In an interview just a year before his death, he told how his family had been Perry’s neighbors; he remembered seeing Perry’s barn go up in flames. He also remembered the shouts of the men who surrounded the house. “It sounded like they were whooping it up,” he said. “Having a great time.”
The Hightowers fled to Fort Lauderdale, where Armstrong lived the rest of his life. According to his Sun-Sentinel obituary, he for many years ran Hightower’s Grocery on NW Fourth Avenue at Fifth Street. For more than 60 years he was a member of the First Baptist Church Piney Grove.
And until a journalist took him back in 2001, he never returned to Ocoee.