When I research civil rights issues for the novel in progress, some of what I’m looking at happened while I was growing up there, and seeing it brings back vague memories of stories I saw in the newspaper. I often wonder if Florida’s current residents hear about these incidents in high school and college history classes. Sad to say, these four incidents aren’t the sum of the KKK violence in the state in the past. The first two happened before I was in Florida but were very much part of the conversation. Each of the blurbs below comes from Wikipedia.
The Rosewood massacre was a racially motivated massacre of black people and the destruction of a black town that took place during the first week of January 1923 in rural Levy County, Florida, United States. At least six black people and two white people were killed, though eyewitness accounts suggested a higher death toll of 27 to 150. The town of Rosewood was destroyed in what contemporary news reports characterized as a race riot. Florida had an especially high number of lynchings of black men in the years before the massacre, including a well-publicized incident in December 1922.
Before the massacre, the town of Rosewood had been a quiet, primarily black, self-sufficient whistle-stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Trouble began when white men from several nearby towns lynched a black Rosewood resident because of accusations that a white woman in nearby Sumner had been assaulted by a black drifter. A mob of several hundred whites combed the countryside hunting for black people and burned almost every structure in Rosewood. For several days, survivors from the town hid in nearby swamps until they were evacuated to larger towns by train and car. No arrests were made for what happened in Rosewood. The town was abandoned by its former black and white residents; none of them ever moved back, none of them were ever compensated for the loss of their land, and the town ceased to exist.
The Groveland Four (or the Groveland Boys) were four African American men, Ernest Thomas, Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, and Walter Irvin. In July 1949, the four were accused of raping a white woman and severely beating her husband in Lake County, Florida. The oldest, Thomas, tried to elude capture and was killed that month. The others were put on trial. Shepard and Irvin received death sentences, and Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison. The events of the case led to serious questions about the arrests, allegedly coerced confessions and mistreatment, and the unusual sentencing following their convictions. Their incarceration was exacerbated by their systemic and unlawful treatment—including the death of Shepherd, and the near-fatal shooting of Irvin. Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and Irvin in 1968. All four were posthumously exonerated by the state of Florida in 2021.
Murder of Activist Harry T. Moore
Harry Tyson Moore (November 18, 1905 – December 25, 1951) was an African-American educator, a pioneer leader of the civil rights movement, founder of the first branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Brevard County, Florida, and president of the state chapter of the NAACP.
Harry T. Moore and his wife, Harriette Moore, also an educator, were the victims of a bombing of their home in Mims, Florida, on Christmas night 1951. As the local hospital in Titusville would not treat Blacks, he died on the way to the nearest one that would, a Black hospital in Sanford, Florida, about 30 miles to the northwest. His wife died from her wounds nine days later, on January 3, 1952, at the same hospital. This followed their both having been fired from teaching because of their activism.
The murder case was investigated, including by the FBI in 1951–1952, but no one was ever prosecuted. Two more investigations were conducted in the 1970s and 1990s. A state investigation and forensic work in 2005–2006 resulted in naming the likely perpetrators as four Ku Klux Klan members, all long dead by that time. Harry T. Moore was the first NAACP member and official to be assassinated for civil rights activism; the couple are the only husband and wife to be killed for the movement. Moore has been called the first martyr of this stage of the civil rights movement that expanded in the 1960s.
The Tyranny of Sheriff Willis McCall
Willis Virgil McCall (July 21, 1909 – April 28, 1994) was sheriff of Lake County, Florida. He was elected for seven consecutive terms from 1944 to 1972. He gained national attention in the Groveland Case in 1949. In 1951, he shot two defendants in the case while he was transporting them to a new trial and killed one on the spot. Claiming self-defense, he was not indicted for this action. He also enforced anti-miscegenation laws and was a segregationist.
He lost his bid for an eighth term shortly after he had been acquitted of the murder in 1972 of Tommy J. Vickers, a mentally-disabled black prisoner who died in his custody. McCall’s notoriety outlived him. In 2007, the Lake County Commission voted unanimously to change a road named in his honor 20 years before because of his history as a “bully lawman whose notorious tenure was marked by charges of racial intolerance, brutality and murder.” During his 28-year tenure as sheriff, McCall was investigated multiple times for civil rights violations and inmate abuse and was tried for murder but was never convicted.
For me, this past isn’t that far away. I still get angry about it and find it hard to mention it in my fiction without preaching a sermon. The KKK, the police, and civic leaders were often one and the same group.