Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1951 when a bomb was placed under their home in Mims, FL.
To celebrate Black History month, we will be spotlighting key African Americans who had a major impact on Florida.
Harry T. Moore knew he was a marked man.
He helped sign up black voters throughout the state in the 1930s and '40s, organized more than 50 Florida branches of the NAACP and investigated lynchings around the state.
It was his insistence on equal rights and his refusal to be intimidated that led to his killing on Christmas Night, 1951, in the small city of Mims in East Central Florida. Moore's wife, Harriette, also was killed by the bomb set beneath their home.
“Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore were the first martyrs of the civil rights movement,” said Sonya Mallard, coordinator of the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park and Museum in Mims, which is built on the spot where the Moores were murdered. “Harry T. Moore got over 116,000 blacks to vote. Remember, voting is a big thing, and for Harry T. Moore to do that, he traveled the backroads in Florida with threats against his life.”
Moore’s life story is one of inspiration and tragedy.
Born in the small Florida town of Houston in Suwanee County, Moore moved to Florida’s east coast at age 19 to take a teaching job after graduating from college.
One night, while playing Bid Whist, a card game that was popular in the black community, he met Harriette Sims, his future bride-to-be.
Related: Black History Month: Florida civil rights leaders, Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore
“He fell in love instantly," Mallard said. "She was three years older than him and she was taller than him, but they fell in love.”
The couple married on Dec. 25, 1926.
Harriette left her job as an insurance agent and became a teacher. Harry soon was named principal at the area’s all-black school.
However, it was his quest for equality for black citizens that led him to seek out more than just being a teacher.
Getting involved with the NAACP
“Over the course of some years, Harry became concerned with the lack of equity in terms of facilities, pay for teachers, materials for his students, etc…” said Bill Gary, president of the board of the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex.
“Harry received some information from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Upon reading about the NAACP and what its mission was and objectives, Harry thought, ‘this is the organization that I need to make and bring about changes in the lives of the people I come in contact with, the people that I teach, my friends and my family.' "
So, in 1934, Harry organized the first Brevard County branch of the NAACP. He went on to organize some 50 more branches of the NAACP throughout Florida.
In 1941, he helped organize the Florida State Conference of NAACP branches, and he was named the group’s president.
During the course of the next several years he encouraged more than 100,000 black people to sign up to vote.
Harry thought that even if a black person could not be elected, black voters certainly could use their leverage to support candidates who expressed an interest in doing better for black citizens.
“Of course, that upset the status quo,” Gary said. “Many politicians and others became alarmed at this turn of events.”
All the while Harry worked for equal pay for black teachers in public schools, despite them being segregated.
His efforts worked. He filed a lawsuit in Florida to equalize teacher pay for black and white teachers and that led to lawsuits in other states and, ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that all teachers would be paid the same.
Activism draws negative attention
Harry Moore's efforts didn't please everyone.
In 1946, both Moores were fired from their teaching jobs because of their activism.
After that, Harry dedicated his time to seeking justice for black people by investigating lynchings and filing lawsuits against voter registration barriers and white primaries.
In 1949, Harry became involved in a case that ultimately led to his murder. It was known as the Groveland Four case, where a group of black men was accused of raping a white woman.
One of the four was killed when lynched by a posse while the other three were detained by Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.
The three surviving men, including one minor, were eventually found guilty by an all-white jury.
As Executive Director of the Florida NAACP, Harry Moore organized a campaign against what he saw as the wrongful convictions of the three men.
After the men’s convictions were overturned, McCall shot two of them while transporting them to a new trial venue. He claimed that the two men, both handcuffed, attacked him in an escape attempt.
One man died at the scene while the other survived and said McCall shot them in cold blood.
Moore called for an indictment against McCall and called on Florida Governor Fuller Warren to suspend McCall from office.
The bombing on Christmas night
Six weeks later, on Christmas night 1951, the night of the Moores’ 25th wedding anniversary, a bomb went off beneath the couples' house in Mims.
“For the Moores, Dec. 25, 1951, was not just Christmas, it was their 25th wedding anniversary,” Mallard said. “So they spent Christmas just like you and I, but they didn’t open up their presents because their youngest daughter, Evangeline, was coming home on the train.”
The Moores had celebrated Christmas with their eldest daughter, Peaches, and Harry’s mother, who was visiting from Jacksonville.
“When those lights went out, the Klansmen who was hiding in the grove waited, and then they crawled under the house, just like a snake,” Mallard said. “Approximately 10:20 p.m., BOOM! They said that was the loudest bomb heard around the world. That bomb was so explosive that it lifted their bodies up and they caved into the ground. It took people to dig them out.”
Both were fatally injured; Harry was dead on arrival at the black hospital in Sanford, which was about 30 miles away but was the closest to serve African Americans.
Harriette died from her injuries nine days later at the same hospital in Sanford, and just a day after attending her husband’s funeral.
Their daughter, Peaches, and Harry's mother were not injured in the blast.
Their legacy today
Moore has been called the first martyr in the civil rights movement even though many historians use the “Brown v. Board of Education” case in 1954, three years later, as the start of the movement.
Regardless of semantics, Harry Moore was the first NAACP official assassinated in the civil rights struggle. He and his wife were the first couple to be killed for civil rights.
It took 55 years before the Moores' killers were named.
In 2006, then-state attorney General Charlie Crist announced results of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation that named four members of the Ku Klux Klan as being directly linked to the Moores' death.
The investigation said it found no link between McCall and the KKK conspirators, a point that is still debated today.
Four artifacts of the Moores reside in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park and Museum is built in their honor at the site of their murders. The 12-acre campus features a museum and a replica of the house where the Moores were killed.
“We see his legacy as one that should be embraced and should be more widely known,” Gary said. “You find very little in history books relating to civil rights about Harry and Harriette Moore, and it’s our mission to change that.”
Walters can be reached at email@example.com
This story originally published to floridatoday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.