HOW MABEL MADE A DIFFERENCE…
The courage of Mabel Norris Reese may have been forgotten had it not been for ‘Devil in the Grove’, Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book that recounted a tragedy that occurred in Lake County, Florida. Accused of raping a white woman in 1949, black suspects who became known as “The Groveland Four” were victims of the time — and victims of Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall. One, Ernest Green, was killed by a posse before he could stand trial. The others (Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Charles Greenlee) were imprisoned and brutally tortured by McCall and his deputies to coerce confessions.
Reese, owner and editor of the small town Mount Dora Topic newspaper (read David Cohea’s article here), initially sided with McCall. But when he murdered Sammy Shepherd and wounded Walter Irvin by claiming the handcuffed prisoners had tried to escape, Reese realized she had been an unwitting accomplice in his reign of terror. Despite threats to her life and her livelihood which found the KKK detonating two bombs at her home, burning a cross in her lawn, poisoning her dog, and launching a rival newspaper to drive her out of business, she spent the remainder of her career dedicated to holding the corrupt sheriff, deputies, judges, and attorneys to task. Even as she faced McCall’s wrath, she continued to write articles in support of the two surviving Groveland Boys until they were released from prison. In the 1950s, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her persistent attempts to gain justice for the Platt family children who were forced out of Mount Dora’s whites-only public schools when the school board and Willis McCall suspected they were “negroes.” Mabel stepped up yet again when McCall, along with the local judges and attorneys, framed a mentally disabled 19-year old for rape. Committed without trial to the state hospital for the insane, Jesse Daniels would spend fourteen years in confinement before Mabel, through articles and alliances formed with Jesse’s mother, politicians, and attorneys, would secure his release. This tragedy is told in painful detail in Gilbert King’s latest release, ‘Beneath a Ruthless Sun’.
This page will note developments related to the efforts of the Mabel Norris Reese Tribute Fund, Inc., formed to raise monies for the creation of a bust of Mabel Norris Reese to be placed on permanent public display in Mount Dora. It will be a visible reminder of the need to protect a free press, how the written word can bring justice to unjust situations, and to honor the courage of a woman who couldn’t be intimidated.