Harry T. Moore (1905 – 1951)
Stage Name: Mo’ Money Moore Problems
The year was 1951, and America was in its post-World War II recovery era. Ration restrictions were lifted, families were united after years spent apart and consumerism skyrocketed the economy. Decades of depression, and America was apparently looking good, feeling good. But that same America is the one that’s also in this headline “Hate Bomb Kills NAACP Secretary.”
The fight for democracy and freedom abroad may have ended, but the fight for freedom and equality stateside never did. Harry Tyson Moore was the leader of the NAACP in Florida. He and his wife were killed by a bomb that was placed under their home by members of the Ku Klux Klan on Christmas night in 1951, which was also their 25th wedding anniversary. That headline is about them.
Harry and his wife, Harriette, dedicated their lives to creating better schools, ensuring voting rights for Black people and putting an end to lynching in Florida. However their deaths didn’t mark the end of their legacies. In the years that followed, the social justice tenets they pushed for gained more widespread support. Their deaths caused “Uproar(s)” of protests, mailed letters to public officials, and newly created art like Langston Hughes’ “Ballad of Harry Moore” from which the following verse comes:
And this he says, our Harry Moore,
As from the grave he cries:
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold
For freedom never dies!
Society was stirred, and with this week’s shuffle we dive into the story of why Harry and Harriette Moore inspired such a response…as well as this present-day playlist. Harry says press play:
Harry T. Moore was an educator, organizer and leader who empowered his students, teachers and members of the African-American community in Florida to unite together in their fight for equality throughout the 1930s and 1940s — years before the turbulent days of the later Civil Rights Movement. Harry was born in Houston, Florida, on November 18, 1905, to Johnny and Rosa Moore. His father owned a small shop and worked for the railroad while his mother assisted with the shop and worked in the cotton fields of the farming community. This panhandle town not yet hit by a pandemic and public outcry against closed beaches was his home until he was sent to live with his three aunts in Jacksonville. His father passed away when he was nine years old. Struggling to make ends meet as a single mother, Rosa felt her son would have a better, more supported life with his educated aunts in Jacksonville, which was a hub for African-American culture.
It was a city of Floridians who had come a long way from what Jacksonville once was and that was a home for people whose wealth depended on the labor of enslaved people — just like its namesake, Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States. Because it was a port city, its urban environment meant that the enslaved were not so much working on plantation fields. Rather, they were working at sawmills and wharves, for example. Some owners rented out their enslaved people to help load and unload ships — sometimes loading themselves onto a ship amongst the cargo in an attempt to escape.
By the time a young Harry arrived in Jacksonville, it was booming with African-American communities and businesses. Eventually, this city came to be known as the ‘Harlem of the South’ and had the likes of Zora Neale Hurston walk and talk in its streets. So, Harry shows up to live with his three aunts, Jesse, Adrianna and Masie Tyson, who were all well-educated and took him in with open arms. His aunts, two of whom were teachers, encouraged him to do well in school and fall in love with learning.
At 19, he graduated from Florida Memorial College and embarked on his education career. His first job was teaching fourth graders in Cocoa, Florida, at its only Black elementary school. During his two-year stint there, he became enamored with a pretty, slightly older woman: Harriette Vyda Simms, who was 23 (he was about 20). He said, “Harriette Vyda, you give me vida.” And the rest was history. They viva la vida’d happily ever after. OK, maybe he didn’t say that, but the two got married in 1926 and moved into her parents’ home in Mims, Florida, a small citrus town about an hour east of Orlando. Harry continued to teach, and was later promoted to principal of the Titusville Colored School, which served fourth through ninth graders.
In 1928, Harriette gave birth to their first daughter, Annie Rosalea, AKA Peaches. Harriette returned to the teaching world when Peaches was six months old, taking a job at the Mims Colored School. Then, in 1930, she gave birth to their second daughter, Juanita Evangeline. As the young family further cemented their lives in their Florida home, Harry started a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Brevard County. In 1937, three years after the chapter’s founding, Harry partnered with Thurgood Marshall and the Florida State Teachers Association to file a lawsuit in an effort to equalize teachers’ salaries, no matter their race. It was the first lawsuit of its kind to emerge in the deep south.
Although Harry lost the case, it paved the way for dozens of other similar lawsuits that eventually resulted in equalized salaries. By the early 1940s, Harry had begun to throw all his weight behind his chapter of the NAACP as he protested and petitioned for equal salaries, desegregated schools and voting rights for Blacks. And then, he went even deeper into the darker depths of racism that persisted in society.
The U.S. has a long history of lynching Black people, and nowhere is that more true than in Florida. According to the author Tameka Bradley Hobbs, lynchings in Florida continued longer than anywhere else in the country. In the 19th century, lynchings were a spectacle. They took place during the day, and many people would come out to the town square to observe. By the 1940s, lynchings were carried out long after the sun had gone down by small, secretive groups. But the results remained the same: Black people who dared challenge white supremacy and question the status quo were killed at the hands of angry White mobs and no justice was served.
Enter Harry: he was determined to bring justice to the families of lynching victims and, until the day he was killed, he investigated every single lynching that he was aware of in Florida. Oftentimes he wrote letters about these lynchings that pushed for change and complete riddance of lynching. One to the Florida delegates read, “We cannot afford to wait until the several states get “trained” or “educated” to the point where they can take effective action in such cases. Human life is too valuable for more experimenting of this kind. The federal government must be empowered to take the necessary action for the protection of its citizens. We need a federal government with ‘teeth.’” He called for action and wasn’t answered.
And, no good deed goes unpunished. In 1946, both Harry and Harriette were fired from their jobs as teachers. Realizing that the Southern schools that surrounded him would never hire again him as a teacher, he took a leap of faith and threw all of his efforts behind the Florida NAACP and became a paid full-time organizer. Two years into the job, he grew the Florida NAACP to over 10,000 members. However, those numbers plummeted when the national NAACP headquarters raised annual dues from $1 to $2. With less money to work with and fewer members to support, Harry had a tough time keeping his job.
But he never shied away from the fight especially when it came to activism for anti-lynching. In 1949, four Black men by the names of Charles Greenlee, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd were accused of raping one white woman, Norma Padgett. One of the four men ran away in an attempt to escape arrest, but was later found in the woods and murdered by a lynch posse. The remaining three were detained by infamous and heartless Sheriff Willis McCall.
As the leader of the NAACP in Florida, Harry organized a campaign against what he saw as the wrongful accusations of the three men. This also meant that he was going up against Sheriff McCall and this put an astronomical target on his back by the white supremacist community. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually, after two years, overturned the convictions of the Groveland Boys and ordered a retrial. It was Sheriff McCall’s job to transport two of the men from one jail to another. However after stopping to check a flat tire and to let the men use the bathroom, he shot both Samuel Shepherd and Walter Irvin after claiming that they attacked him. Samuel died. Walter survived, but served life in prison. Harry Moore actively called for Sheriff McCall’s suspension. Once again he wrote letters, but ran out of time. Harry lost his job as the NAACP Director in Florida. He was a man ahead of his time with a forward-thinking agenda that pressured leadership to respond to injustice. Though fired, his work didn’t end. Sadly, one month later, his life did.
On Christmas Day in 1951, Harry and Harriette were home celebrating the holiday and their 25th wedding anniversary. Suddenly, as they were asleep, a bomb exploded and their house went up into pieces. The nearest hospital was 30 miles away. Harry died in the car on the way there. Harriette lived nine days longer, dying in the hospital on January 3, 1952. Their deaths made the front pages of newspapers around America. The FBI investigated this death for years, and gained no traction. The murder of the Moores was never solved. He was the first NAACP official killed in the Civil Rights fight.
Harry T. Moore mobilized his community. During his leadership, he helped register thousands of African-Americans so they could vote, demanded and succeeded in calling for equal teacher pay and tirelessly wrote for an end to lynchings in the state of Florida. His momentum did not die with the bomb that was heard around the world. It expanded and the Civil Rights movement progressed forward.
Words from Harry:
“Every advancement comes by way of sacrifice. Freedom never descends upon a people. It is always brought with a price.”