The courage of Mabel Norris Reese might 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, in 1949.
Reese's fierce pursuit of the truth began when four black suspects, known as The Groveland Four, were accused of a raping a white woman. The suspects were victims of the time -- and victims of Lake County’s callous Sheriff Willis McCall. One of the Four, 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. McCall was elected to seven consecutive terms as sheriff from 1944 to 1972,
Reese, owner and editor of the small town newspaper, the Mount Dora Topic, initially sided with McCall. But when he murdered Sammy Shepherd and wounded Walter Irvin while 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 that included the Ku Klux Klan (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. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her persistent attempts to gain justice for the Platts, a local family whose children were suspected of being "negroes" and were therefore forced out of Mount Dora's public schools.
Despite McCall's wrath, she continued to write articles in support of the two surviving Groveland Boys until they were released from prison. Concurrently, she continued to write articles and form alliances with politicians and attorneys to find justice for Jesse Daniels, a mentally disabled 19-year old who spent fourteen years in the state hospital for the insane after McCall, with the aid of local judges and attorneys, framed him for rape. Daniels was the subject of the book, “Beneath a Ruthless Sun,” also written by King.
Through the persistent efforts of their families, as well as evidence presented by authors Gilbert King and Gary Corsair and the support of politicians and private citizens seeking justice, The Groveland Four were pardoned posthumously by the State of Florida on January 11, 2019 -- 70 years after their arrests.
Two decades before his death in 1994, McCall lost his re-election bid for an eighth term after being acquitted of the murder in 1972 of Tommy J. Vickers, a mentally disabled black prisoner who died in his custody.
Reese was inducted into the Lake County Women’s Hall of Fame in late 2018. "She was a trailblazer. She devoted her life to doing what was right at such a great cost to her, and it is right she be commended,” said King, author of “Devil in the Grove.”
Now the author and others in the community have set up the Mabel Norris Reese Tribute Fund for the public's assistance to pay for the creation of a bust of Reese. The sculpture will be on public display in Mount Dora to honor the courage of a woman who couldn't be intimidated, and to remind the observer that the written word, conveyed to the public by a free press, can bring justice to unjust situations.
Anyone wishing to donate to the memorial fund can do so here. For more news and events in Mount Dora, Tavares & Eustis, visit the area's websiteand download the area's free mobile app. Free subscriptions to Mount Dora Buzz' monthly updates are available here.