Joe Boyles: Guest Columnist
February is Black History Month, a designation made by President Ford in the bicentennial year of 1976. Some might argue that we shouldn’t single out a race for recognizing their history. I disagree. For more than two centuries, the contributions made by African-Americans to building our country went unrecognized. If you watch PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, you know that 19th Century black memorabilia are both rare and highly prized because so little survives. Similar memorabilia from before the American Civil War is practically non-existent.
For centuries, there were state laws prohibiting enslaved African-Americans from being taught literacy so it isn’t surprising that so little of their history is recorded. With this in mind, I think it is very important to recognize the contributions made by African-Americans in building our nation. I have often thought that Madison would be a great place to house a museum and library to honor the important contributions made by our community’s Black ancestors.
The story I’m about to tell isn’t a Madison story, but instead, begins in neighboring Suwannee County. In the 19th Century, one of the most important means of connecting the state was the railroad which ran from Jacksonville westward across the panhandle to New Orleans. The steam engines needed to be replenished every thirty miles or so with water. In Suwannee County, the refueling depot was just east of Live Oak in Houston (pronounced house-ton). There was a store at that location too which provided a living for the black station-master Johnny Moore. In late 1905, his wife gave birth to a boy they named Harry Tyson Moore.
When Harry was just 9, his father died and the family moved to Brevard County in Central Florida. Young Harry was an inquisitive child and applied himself to his studies, excelling in the classroom. Not surprisingly, he became a school teacher. After marrying Harriette Simms and beginning his own family, Harry became involved in the early Civil Rights Movement in Florida. By 1934, he was the secretary of the Florida NAACP chapter.
Moore’s leadership of the state NAACP organization was not without controversy. As might be expected, he was bitterly opposed by whites during a period when racism was rampant. He pushed hard on issues such as school equality and organizing teachers. Many in the black community felt he was pushing much too hard on the wrong issues. He had enemies on every front.
In 1949, four young blacks were accused of raping a white woman in nearby Lake County. One was killed by a lynch mob while the other three were taken into custody. An all-white jury convicted the young men of a capital offense. The underage youth was sentenced to life imprisonment while the other two were given the death sentence. This was the infamous Groveland case.
Harry Moore organized an appeals case that was handled by the noted lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. As a result, the conviction was thrown out by the United States Supreme Court and a new trial ordered. While transporting the defendants to a new trial location, Sheriff Willis McCall shot the men he claimed were attempting to escape. One died, but the other survived and, not surprisingly, told a much different story. Sheriff McCall was known to have a fierce reputation.
Now Harry Moore petitioned the governor, Fuller Warren, to have Sheriff McCall removed from office. The governor expressed his displeasure with this request. As I mentioned, Moore wasn’t afraid to take on the rich and powerful and as a result, earned many enemies.
On Christmas night 1951, shortly after the Moore’s celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, their home in Mims was fire bombed. Harry died in an ambulance in route to a nearby hospital; Harriette died eight days later. Fortunately, their daughters were not in the home at the time of the crime.
An investigation never turned up who had planted the bomb, so no one was ever held accountable for the crime. Decades later in 2005, Governor Charlie Crist ordered the case reopened and this investigation identified four Klansmen active in central Florida a half century earlier as the culprits. By this time, all were dead … so they answered for their crimes to a higher authority.
Harry Tyson Moore and his devoted wife are considered the first martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. Their sacrifice is often overshadowed by the more prominent case of Emmet Till in Mississippi a few years later.
This important saga is Florida’s history began in the tiny hamlet of Houston not far from here. Who would suspect that such a consequential life would begin in such humble circumstances?