Harry T. Moore was born on November 18, 1905, in Houston (Hous-ton), Florida, a tiny farming community in Suwanee County, in the Florida Panhandle. He was the only child of Johnny and Rosa Moore. His father tended the water tanks for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and ran a small store in front of the house.
Johnny Moore’s health faltered when Harry was nine years old, and he died in 1914. Rosa tried to manage alone, working in the cotton fields and running her little store on weekends, but in 1915, she sent Harry to live with one of her sisters in Daytona Beach. The following year, he moved to Jacksonville, where he spent the next three years living with three other aunts: Jesse, Adrianna, and Masie Tyson.
This would prove to be the most important period in his formative years. Jacksonville had a large and vibrant African American community, with a proud tradition of independence and intellectual achievement. Moore’s aunts were educated, well-informed women (two were educators and one was a nurse), who took this spindly, intelligent boy into their house on Louisiana Street and treated him like the son they’d never had. Under their nurturing guidance, Moore’s natural inquisitiveness and love of learning were reinforced.
After three years in Jacksonville, he returned home to Suwanee County, in 1919, and enrolled in the high school program of Florida Memorial College. Over the next four years, Moore excelled in his studies, earning straight As, except for one B+; he was even nicknamed “Doc” by his classmates.
In May 1925, at age 19, he graduated from Florida Memorial College with a “normal degree” and accepted a teaching job in Cocoa, Florida– in the
Building a Family and a Career
He spent the next two years teaching fourth grade at Cocoa’s only black elementary school. During his first year in Brevard County, he met an attractive older woman (she was 23, while he was barely 20), named Harriette Vyda Simms. She had taught school herself, but was currently selling insurance for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Within a year they were married.
Her family lived in Mims, a small citrus town outside of Titusville. The newlyweds moved in with Harriette’s parents until they built their own house on an adjoining acre of land. Meanwhile, Harry had been promoted to principal of the Titusville Colored School, which went from fourth through ninth grades. He taught ninth grade and supervised a staff of six teachers.
In March 1928, their eldest daughter, Annie Rosalea, nicknamed Peaches, was born. When Peaches was six months old, Harriette began teaching at the Mims Colored School. On September 30, 1930, their “baby daughter,” Juanita Evangeline, was born.
Moore Joins the NAACP
In 1934, Harry Moore started the Brevard County NAACP, and steadily built it into a formidable organization. In 1937, in conjunction with the all-black Florida State Teacher’s Association, and backed by the NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall in New York, Moore filed the first lawsuit in the Deep South to equalize black and white teacher salaries. His good friend, John Gilbert, principal of the Cocoa Junior High School, courageously volunteered as the plaintiff. Although the Gilbert case was eventually lost in state court, it spawned a dozen other federal lawsuits in Florida that eventually led to equalized salaries.
By 1941, NAACP work had become Moore’s driving obsession. In 1941, he organized the Florida State Conference of the NAACP, and soon became its unpaid executive secretary. He began churning out eloquent letters, circulars, and broadsides protesting unequal salaries, segregated schools, and the disenfranchisement of black voters.
Moore’s Fight for Equal Rights
In 1943, he moved into an even more dangerous arena: lynchings and police brutality. At first, his protests were confined to letters to the governor, but he quickly threw himself directly into lynching cases, taking sworn affidavits from the victims’ families and even launching his own investigations. From that point until his death, Moore investigated every single lynching in Florida.
In 1944, Thurgood Marshall won a major victory in the landmark Smith v. Allwright case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the “lily-white” Democratic Party primary was unconstitutional. Harry Moore immediately organized the Progressive Voters’ League, and in the next six years, due primarily to his leadership, over 116,000 black voters were registered in the Florida Democratic Party. This represented 31 percent of all eligible black voters in the state, a figure that was 51% higher than any other southern state.
In June 1946, Moore paid a terrible price for his political activism, as he and Harriette were both fired from their teaching jobs. Realizing that he would be blacklisted from teaching, Moore took a bold step: he became a full-time, paid organizer for the Florida NAACP.
During his first two years, he built the Florida NAACP to a peak of over 10,000 members in 63 branches. In January 1949, however, the NAACP national office doubled annual dues from $1 to $2, and membership plummeted all over the country. Florida followed suit, dropping to 3,000 members in the next year. Moore and the national office began having increasing disagreements over his political activities and his full-time status.
Moore and the Groveland Rape Case
In July 1949, the Groveland rape burst upon the national scene, after four young black men were accused of raping a white woman. A white mob went on a rampage through Groveland’s black neighborhood, and the National Guard had to be called out to restore order.
Once again, Moore threw himself into the case. After uncovering evidence that the Groveland defendants had been brutally beaten, Moore leveled those charges against the most notorious lawman in the country: Sheriff Willis McCall of Lake County.
Groveland defendants Walter Irvin, Sammy Shepherd, and 16-year-old Charles Greenlee were convicted in 1949, and Irvin and Shepherd were sentenced to death. In April 1951, however, Irvin and Shepherd’s convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court; Lake County immediately prepared to try them again. On November 6, 1951, while Sheriff McCall was driving two of the defendants, Walter Irvin and Sammy Shepherd, back to Lake County for a pre-trial hearing, he shot them, killing Shepherd and critically wounding Irvin. McCall claimed that the handcuffed prisoners had attacked him while trying to escape. Irvin claimed that McCall had simply yanked them out of his car and started firing. The shooting created a national scandal. Harry Moore began calling for McCall’s suspension and indictment for murder.
The Murder of Harry T. Moore
Only six weeks later, on Christmas Day 1951, Moore himself was killed when a bomb was placed beneath the floor joists directly under his bed. Moore died on the way to the hospital; his wife, Harriette, died nine days later.
The protests over the Moores’ deaths rocked the nation, with dozens of rallies and memorial meetings around the country. President Truman and Florida Governor Fuller Warren were inundated with telegrams and protest letters.
In 1952 the FBI launched a massive investigation of their deaths and Ku Klux Klan activity in Central Florida. The investigation pointed toward three Klan members, one of whom committed suicide the day after a FBI interview. The investigation slowed down Klan activity, but led to no arrests. Four dead Klansmen were implicated in the murders. After three investigations, the most recent review having been closed August 2006, the case is closed but remains unsolved.