It’s ten o’ clock on Christmas night, 1951. Four people in a small “shotgun” house in the citrus town of Mims, Florida—former schoolteachers Harry and Harriette Moore, Harry’s mother, Rosa, and the Moores’ daughter Annie Rosalea (“Peaches”)—have retired for the night. Their presents are still unopened, awaiting the arrival of daughter Evangeline from Washington, D.C. About twenty minutes later, neighbors describe hearing a terrific blast. Harry’s brothers-in-law, George and Arnold Simms, are among the first to arrive on the scene. The master bedroom of the house is completely demolished, Harry and Harriette trapped under a pile of debris. There will be no family Christmas for the Moores this year.
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“Why have I never heard of him before?” I wondered during a lunch and learn presentation at the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando, FL earlier this year. The “him” in question was Harry Tyson Moore: schoolteacher and principal, activist, NAACP official, and “the first Civil Rights Movement martyr.” Born in the tiny farming community of Houston in the Florida Panhandle in 1905, Harry graduated from Florida Memorial College (now University) in 1925 and accepted his first teaching position shortly thereafter. Within three years he was married to Harriette Vyda Simms and a father to Annie Rosalea, called “Peaches.” A second daughter, Juanita Evangeline, followed two years later.
If Moore had simply followed the path of husband, father, and schoolteacher/principal, I wouldn’t have gone last week to get a closer look at a man rescued from almost complete obscurity by Ben Green’s 2005 biography, “Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr.” But Harry was a man with a quiet but unquenchable passion for improving the lot of his race, even as he knew it would likely cost him his life: a quest that led him to form the Brevard County NAACP and build the Florida branch of the organization to over 10,000 members within two years; to investigate every lynching in Florida for the last eight years of his life; to fight for equal pay for black teachers; and, most famously, to dive into the Groveland rape case of July 1949, which attracted national attention. The lunch program was a little more brief than I expected, but I heard enough to decide that a visit to the Harry T. and Harriet V. Moore Memorial Park and Cultural Center was in order. So last Friday I took a holiday from work and headed for the small town of Mims. . .
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The day could not be more perfect and I’m glad to be out in the sunshine, driving down S.R. 46 through large stretches of unpopulated trees and ponds on either side. I find the Center with no trouble and am greeted at the front door by staff assistant Bessie Johnson, who begins by showing me a quilt donated to the Complex, a portrait of the Moores by Gail Bishop, and an award-winning poster collage of letters, telegrams, photos, and a vintage typewriter such as Harry might have used for his correspondence, before turning me loose in the main exhibit room. On display here are more historical photographs, besides homely items such as Harriette’s bean pot, bottles that look like those of old patent medicines found on the property, original newspapers with the stories of the bombing and the couple’s deaths. A copy of a funeral hymn, a funeral program. A posthumous award. I snap pictures of what I can, take notes. Shake my head more than once. Whisper, “Unbelieveable” several times as I learn that:
- The average annual salary for a white teacher in 1940 was $1,133; for a black teacher, $569.
- In June 1946, Harry’s activism cost both him and Harriette their teaching jobs. They were not offered contracts for the following year but the official record stated that they resigned. Moore had been warned by the Brevard County Superintendant to cease his political activities.
- Miami NAACP leader Clarence McDaniel brought wilted flowers from Miami to Harry’s funeral service, because no local florist would deliver to a black man’s funeral.
- His brother-in-law, George Simms, helped check the church for bombs prior to the funeral.
- A white man who viewed the wreckage of the Moore’s small frame cottage remarked, “That’s one [racial slur] who will keep his mouth shut.”
Harry Moore died on the way to the hospital, in a car because the only local ambulance company would not transport blacks. Harriette, given a “fifty-fifty chance” of survival, left the hospital against her doctor’s advice to view her husband’s body at the funeral home. Returning to the hospital afterward, she succumbed to a blood clot on January 3. Decades later, the Moore’s shattered home has been rebuilt to look as it did when they lived there. With Bessie again serving as my guide, I step into a peaceful time warp: life-sized mannequins of the Moores are at a round table in the main room, with Harry looking up from scattered papers that represent his correspondence. Because he liked music, a piano is at the right. Off the front room are three smallish bedroooms: Harry and Harriette’s with its tiny closet, their daughters’, and Rosa’s. Next is a bathroom with an old-fashioned chain-pull toilet, then a small, enclosed porch off the kitchen. It’s a charming little house on a lovely spread of land that includes orange trees referred to by Harry as “Florida Gold” for his and Harriette’s retirement. I snap more pictures as Bessie waits patiently. As I tell her goodbye, I ask if I can take her picture as well. She’s a little surprised, a little hesitant: “My picture on your blog? Oh, I don’t know!” She gives me a hug instead. Then I’m off to the LaGrange/Mims Cemetery, about five minutes away, to pay my final respects to the Moores.Thanks to Bessie I find their headstone almost immediately. The day is quite warm, but I linger at the grave site for several minutes on a bench, taking in the peace. I have the place to myself, silent except for the occasional passing car, the woman talking to the driver of the motorcycle they share. The grave is well tended. The couple’s epitaph, partially shielded by an artificial flower arrangement, reads: “In memory of those who gave their lives.” Rosa Moore had understandably been concerned for her son’s safety. Before going to bed on the last night of his life, he told her: “Every advancement comes by way of sacrifice. What I am doing is for the benefit of my race.” The identities of those responsible for the bombing will not be revealed until 2006, when Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist reopens the case and the names of four members of the Ku Klux Klan—by that time all deceased—are made public.The Moores lie undisturbed in their final sleep, their earthly work ended but not forgotten. I sit a little longer, thinking about courage, about sacrifice. There is the slightest touch of breeze. At last I say thanks, and goodbye, and head back down the road to keep another appointment in another small town, at another final resting place—this time of a man who could hardly be more different, but who has proved just as memorable.
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The Moores’ story is too full to be told in a single blog post. If you’re interested in finding out more, a few good places to start are listed below. In the meantime, I hope you’ll join me here next week for Two Very Different Men, Part II:The Strange Journey of Lewis Thornton Powell. See you then!
- The Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park and Cultural Center
- “Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr”
- Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore (PBS)