At Christmas, Evangeline Moore thinks of her martyred parents and demands justice
By Avis Thomas-Lester,
Evangeline Moore closes her eyes as she recalls what happened on Christmas, 60 years ago. She’s able to tell the story because she wasn’t home in Florida when the bomb went off.
Her father, Harry Tyson Moore, was an early, fearless civil rights leader in Florida who spent the late 1930s and 1940s investigating every lynching of blacks in the state.
It was on Christmas 1951, shortly after 10 p.m., that someone, likely a Klansman, lighted the fuse to a massive explosive charge rigged under the family’s home in Mims, about 40 miles from Orlando.
Evangeline, then 21 and working in the District as a clerk typist for the federal government, learned the tragic details when she arrived in Florida two days after Christmas, expecting a joyous family reunion.
Her father had been killed by the blast that leveled their home; her mother, Harriette V. Moore, would die nine days later.
Nearly 12 years before Medgar Evers was fatally shot, 14 years before Malcolm X was slain and 17 years before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Harry Moore became an important early martyr for civil rights.
Langston Hughes wrote a poem about his slaying a few months later.
It seems that I hear Harry Moore,
From the earth his voice cries,
No bomb can kill the dream I hold —
For freedom never dies!
Now retired and living in Bowie, Evangeline Moore has spent her life goading investigators to find her parents’ killers — and for a time a few years back, she had reason to hope. But that hope was dashed in the fall.
Christmas marks the passage of another year. Still, the 81-year-old refuses to give up.
“I think that God has left me here all these years to get justice for my dad and my mom,” she said. “The whole course of my family’s history changed when they killed my parents. I won’t stop until somebody is held accountable.”
Harry Moore started the first branch of the NAACP in Florida in Brevard County in 1934, the first among more than 70 he would help start over the next 17 years, officials said.
Over the years, his biggest challenge was racial violence. Florida had a long history of brutality against blacks, often with law enforcement and government officials cooperating with racist groups.
In 1947, the Moores were fired from their jobs as teachers, a move designed to intimidate him. Instead, Harry Moore began working full time for the NAACP.
He wrote to the Florida delegation of Congress: “Again we must remind you of the urgent need of a strong Federal law against lynching and mob violence. . . . We need a Federal law with ‘teeth.’ ”
In 1949, Harry Moore investigated a case in Groveland, Fla., in which four black men were accused of raping a white woman despite questionable evidence. When a sheriff, Willis V. McCall, shot two of the suspects on the eve of their retrial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their death sentences in 1951, Moore “demanded that McCall be indicted and tried for murder,” his daughter said.
Friends warned that he might be in danger.
“He was incredibly courageous,” said Paul Ortiz, author of “Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920” and director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“There was a lot of corruption, and the Sheriff McCall situation was incredibly dangerous,” Ortiz said. “When Harry Moore launched the investigation and tried to get federal intervention in Groveland, he crossed a line in a way the white power structure was not going to tolerate. That’s why his [murder] case is so complicated. There were so many layers of complicity, which is a testament to how dangerous what he was doing was.”
The bomb detonated under the Moores’ yellow clapboard house on Old Dixie Highway. Harry Moore died en route to the hospital; his wife, suffering a concussion and internal injuries, was hospitalized. Annie Rosalea Moore, their elder daughter who was nicknamed “Peaches,” was not injured.
Evangeline Moore, who had been drawn north by a federal program to recruit black workers, left Union Station at 7 a.m. Dec. 26 for a 26-hour train ride south. She heard nothing of the bombing before she left Washington.
The Moores had decided to delay opening presents until “Van” arrived. That Christmas also marked her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.
But instead of her parents picking her up, an uncle and aunt escorted her sister to meet her. “Van, there’s no easy way to tell you this,” she remembered her uncle telling her. “There was an explosion at your house on Christmas Day. Your father is dead. Your mother was hurt very badly.”
News of the bombing made the cover of Ebony magazine and the front page of the New York Times.
Eleanor Roosevelt later condemned the bombing, which was also discussed at the United Nations.
Hundreds turned out for Harry Moore’s funeral on Jan. 1. Inside the church, FBI agents stood sentry because of concerns about an attack during the service.
“My uncle arranged for Peaches and me to be moved to a different location each night because there had been threats against us as well,” Moore said.
Earlier that day, Moore had accompanied her mother to the funeral home in an ambulance against a doctor’s advice. When a reporter tried to photograph her mother, Moore stood between them. “He said, ‘You’ll probably be next,’ ” she recalled.
Harriette Moore went downhill after the trip. “Two days later, Peaches and I were called to the hospital early,” Moore said. “I was standing at the foot of my mom’s bed when she said she was cold. We asked the nurses for blankets. Peaches went to get the doctor. He came back and checked on her, but she had died. . . . The autopsy found that she had a hole in her stomach and her intestines had collapsed from the force of the bomb throwing her.”
‘Took everything from me’
She remembers the despair she felt at losing both of her parents at 21.
“My whole world came to an end that day, really,” Moore said. “Everything that came after that was influenced by the deaths of my parents in that horrible, horrible incident.”
Moore has spent her life haunted by the unsolved slayings of her parents.
She never discussed the incident with her sister or any other relatives.
Moore said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, for which she takes several medications daily. She sees a therapist and a psychiatrist regularly.
“That explosion took everything from me,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve felt truly safe ever in my life since it happened.”
Within weeks of her parents’ deaths, she resumed her life in the District, telling no one of the events. Eight months after the bombing, she married, the first of three that would end in divorce.
“I think I was trying to find security and establish a home,” she said.
She spent her career working in the federal government. She has a son, Draper “Skip” Pagan, with whom she now lives, and a grandson, Darren Pagan, a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University.
Her sister died at 44 of complications of asthma. Moore blames the smoke her sister inhaled the night of the explosion. She has few friends and spends most of her time reading and watching crime dramas like “Law & Order.”
What keeps her going is the hope that justice will be done. She has watched as five local and federal investigations were conducted, resulting in no arrests or indictments. The FBI began investigating shortly after the bombing. Agents were required to submit daily reports to Director J. Edgar Hoover. No arrests were made.
In 2006, the Justice Department reopened the case as part of an initiative to reinvestigate 111 racially motivated homicides involving 124 victims. A year later, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, which provided additional resources for the probe and prosecution of unsolved killings committed in the civil rights era. Most of the cases have been closed, without results, officials said.
Two months ago, Moore was notified that her parents’ case has been closed — again.
“We regret to inform you that we are unable to proceed further with the criminal investigation of this matter because the persons who are likely responsible . . . are deceased,” the Justice Department wrote. “Please accept our sincere condolences on the loss of your parents.”
The letter named as “likely” suspects four Ku Klux Klan members who were questioned as part of the FBI’s initial investigation.
“Re-investigating the cases is about justice, but it’s also about getting closure for the families,” said Cynthia M. Deitle, a former unit chief of the FBI’s Civil Rights Division, said in an interview last year. “In so many of them, witnesses are so old they can no longer remember details or they are dead. The investigators are trying to find any information that will lead to an indictment.”
Few accolades for parents
Worse than knowing that her parents’ killers went unpunished, Moore said, is the knowledge that Harry Moore’s contributions are largely unknown.
Moore said she gets some satisfaction from the few accolades her parents have received, beginning with Hughes’ 1952 poem “The Ballad of Harry T. Moore.”
And certainly no angels cried,
“Peace on earth, good will to men” —
But around the world an echo hurled
A question: When? . . . When? . . . When?
That same year, the NAACP presented Harry Moore posthumously with its Spingarn Medal for the highest achievement of an American of African descent. The Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Justice Center was dedicated by the state in Viera, Fla., in 1996. The property where the yellow house once stood was converted to a memorial site with a museum and a replica of the Moores’ home.
Moore was recently presented with her father’s briefcase at the time of his death. It was taken into evidence after the bombing and later disappeared. A few years ago, it was found in an old barn not far from the house where he died. She considers it her most valuable possession.
Moore has spoken to representatives of the future Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture about including some of her father’s papers and artifacts in its collection.
Even though the NAACP honored her father with the Spingarn Medal, Moore has harsh words for the civil rights organization. She said it fired him a month before he died.
“They blamed him for enrollment dropping in Florida, when in reality, membership had dropped around the country because they had increased the dues from $1 to $2,” Moore said. But after her parents’ deaths, NAACP officials used the bombing in a fundraising campaign, she said.
“I have the brochure,” she said. “The front cover has a picture of my mom and dad. The back has a picture of the bombed-out house. The caption says, ‘That they should not have died in vain.’ I still have not received all the money they owe me from wages they owed my father when he died.”
‘There was no closure’
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said he met with Moore last year to address her concerns. They discussed the investigation, her father’s contribution to civil rights and the organization’s use of her parents’ likeness. “The families of victims of racial violence still feel the pain after all these years,” he said. “They have a hard time getting past it because they still have questions. There was no closure.”
Moore is also angry that her parents are not listed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala.
“I called them, and they said my parents couldn’t be part of the wall because they died before the civil rights movement began,” Moore said.
This month, she attended a memorial service to mark the 60th anniversary of their deaths, one of many trips she’s made over the years to programs in her parents’ honor.
But Florida is a sore spot.
“I remember right after the bombing someone asking what the population of Mims was,” Moore said. “Someone said 1,000. I remember thinking, it was going to be 999 because I was leaving as soon as my parents were buried and I was never coming back.”
Moore said she is disappointed that the Justice Department has closed the case, but she will not stop her fight. She plans to reach out to investigators after the holidays and has spoken with a filmmaker about her parents. She does interviews hoping that the publicity might spur someone to come forward.
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