Mount Dora hasn’t always been a local news desert. Until 2006, the Mount Dora Topic was the sixth-oldest weekly newspaper in the state. This story unfolds some of the chapters of its almost 100-year legacy. This week: the Topic gets an editor willing to stand up for the truth at all costs.
In 1947, Paul Reese bought the Mount Dora Topic. His wife Mabel Norris Reese was editor; Paul worked the linotype machine. Relocated from Ohio with their six-year-old daughter Pat, many in town considered them uppity northern liberals. Mabel Reese certainly was feisty, delivering one of the finest examples of community journalism in her many confrontations with Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall.
Many now acknowledge that McCall ruled Lake County with a racist fist from 1945 to 1972. His Klan affiliations ran deep (as did most Central Florida law enforcement back then) and he and his deputies have been implicated in the beating and death of many area black men. And they were not above “legal lynching” by getting them convicted of capital crimes by all-white juries, using confessions produced by torture and false evidence.
Lake County got on the national map in 1949 when a white woman from Groveland claimed she had been raped by four black men. Details of the Groveland Boys case was captured in harrowing detail in Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. A manufactured crime with shadow that still haunts this town, reading that book is like walking barefoot on broken glass that has never been cleaned up.
Most notorious about the rule of McCall was that the only information available about criminal cases in Lake County came from him, so he was free to doctor the news as he saw fit. Mabel Norris Reese originally joined the chorus of Central Florida journalists who cried for swift justice after the four “suspects” were named.
The proceeding events were big news here—McCall’s right-hand thug, Deputy James Yates, lived in Mount Dora, and Reese covered it all—the apprehension of three of the suspects, the burning of Groveland, the shooting of the fourth suspect up near Gainesville (a 1,000-man posse deputized by McCall shot the suspect so many times that his father couldn’t recognize his son in the morgue), the all-white jury trial and fast judgment. Reese at first was hotly critical of black journalists from outside the state who covered the trial and wrote at length about the injustice of it all, saying they were portraying Lake County in a false, unfair light.
Thurgood Marshall, who had represented the Groveland Boys at trial with an NAACP-sponsored jury team, got the death penalty ruling overturned by the Supreme Court in 1951. McCall was beholden to the mob and the Klan to dole out justice by whatever means, so when he was driving the two inmates back from Raiford to hold trial again in Tavares, he had a flat tire in the woods around Umatilla and then shot the two suspects, claiming they had tried to escape. One died, the other survived by faking his death until the ambulance arrived.
Sheriff Willis McCall stands before the bodies of the two Groveland Boys rape suspects who were shot while being transported back from Death Row in Raiford to Tavares to be retried after the Supreme Court had overturned their conviction, 1951.
Tipped off by the state’s attorney that something was amiss, Mabel Norris Reese had a slow change of heart. Her editorials turned skeptical of McCall’s pronouncements and increasingly critical of his ways.
Unaccustomed to any challenge from within Lake County, McCall called Reese a liar and a communist. He walked up and down Donnelly, telling merchants to pull their advertising from the newspaper.
Reading her editorials on microfilm at the library in Eustis, I didn’t know what was odder, Reese’s willingness to take on a fight no one else cared to get into, or that her struggle with such a venomous foe was wedged it inbetween innumerable reports on the everyday—city council meetings, oak tree plantings, bass fishing, library events, shuffleboard results, Easter services, rosy copy about the city’s fine weather (intended to lure the northern visitor), prep sports, performances the local theater, election politics, engagement announcements, “East Town News” (goings-on in the city’s black neighborhood), car crashes and farm reports. She reported on it all, sold all the ads, too. She didn’t quit her day-job obligation to cover her community while at the same time challenging it to live up to the highest standards.
Her editorial positions were costly. After Walter Irvin, the surviving suspect in the rape case was later found guilty again by an all-white jury in Marion County and sentenced to death, Reese pressed the governor to have the death penalty conviction commuted to life in prison. Dead fish were thrown into her yard and on two separate later occasions, bombs were exploded in her yard.
A few years later in 1954, Allan Platt, a fruit-picker, moved to Mount Dora with his wife and five children and enrolled the children in Roseborough Elementary School. Children complained to their parents that they “looked like niggers” -– their skin was “too dark,” and “they had those noses.” Allan Platt produced marriage certificate that verified their white ancestry (they were Irish-Indian), but Willis McCall stepped in, took a long look at the Platt children and decided they were mulattoes—Negro enough— and forced the Roseborough principal to bar the children from school. (Back in the days of Jim Crow, a person could have no more than 1/16th black blood in order to attend a white school.)
Fighting on her own home turf, Mabel Norris Reese was fierce and relentless going after McCall. In one column addressed to him she wrote, “If you are a parent,” she wrote, “look at your child and think what it would mean to you if an adult said: ‘I do not like your child’s nose’ and thereby decreed that your child cannot associate with other children.” After the column ran, Bryant Bowles, the founder of the racist National Association for the Advancement of White People joined McCall in harassing Reese, swearing to “get even” with her and her communist ways.
Pat Reese, Mabel’s daughter, is a retired schoolteacher who now lives in Daytona. She recounts hearing “some noisy old car” pulling up to their house on Alexander Street one night after dinner and soon afterward hearing the crackle of flames. The family went out to find a cross burning in their front yard.
“We were so scared that the oaks around our house would catch fire and then burn the town down,” she says. Mabel had her daughter run back inside to fetch their camera and shoot a picture of the editor of the Mount Dora Topic posed with the family dog—a chow mix—in front of the burning cross. She then printed in the paper saying that she wasn’t afraid of KKK intimidation because they had the meanest dog in town.
A few days later, their dog was poisoned with strychnine. “The poor thing suffered horribly because we tried to keep it alive,” Pat says. She was in eighth grade by then and the ostracism from fellow students was terrible. The daughter of the paper’s editor, still a kid, she suffered taunts from fellow students. One day they threw nails at her. Perhaps it is ironic that Pat Reese became a schoolteacher, and then in retirement a trainer of service gods. Maybe goodness is the best vengeance.
Mabel Reese didn’t give up the fight, though. She printed pictures of the Platt family repeatedly in the paper—them getting served Thanksgiving dinner, celebrating Christmas, being schooled at home by volunteers from Mount Dora Home and Bible. She ran endless editorials and petitioned the governor.
Front page of the Mount Dora Topic, 1955, with Reese continuing to advocate for the Platt children
Someone painted “KKK” in big red letters on the front window of the newspaper office on Fifth Avenue. Advertisers withdrew and people cancelled their $2.50 a year subscription. In June 1955 someone started a a rival local newspaper called the Mount Dora Herald, proclaiming an alternate view of things to Reese’s “communist” positions on justice and equality. Although the Herald only lasted ten months, the Topic lost substantial financial ground.
Responding to accusations of being a communist, she retorted in an editorial that McCall’s bigotry was in actuality serving the red cause:
Every act which occurs in the United States that shouts a belief in white supremacy to the world is food for the communist mill to turn two-thirds of the world against the United States. Each nail in the existing color fence is a nail in the heart of Democracy, and the blows of pounding them deeper into the fence reverberates around the world as a message of hate into the ears of those whose fate it was to be colored of skin. (12/30/54)
The standoff between Reese and Sheriff McCall drew national attention with a feature story appearing in Time magazine. National sentiment in the form of a flood of supportive letters to the editor greatly helped Reese’s cause.
In the end, the school board’s (and McCall’s) position was challenged and court and thrown out. The Platt children could attend a White school in Mount Dora. The children finished school at Mount Dora Home and Bible.
(For a wonderful retelling of the story, see Susan Carol McCarthy’s novel True Fires. Of the book she has said, “(In Reese) I had my hero, a classic theme — power of love versus the love of power — and the tantalizing details that Ms. Reese and many women and young people in the community took a stand against (Sheriff) Willis and the local good old boys, and somehow, against great odds, Ms. Reese, the women, and the Platt children won. It was a great story, and I felt privileged to tell it.” McCarthy has recently published another historical novel set in Orlando’s College Park during the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1963. She will be back in Mount Dora in October with an appearance at the W.T. Bland Public Library.)
None of this approached the deeper racial issues of the day. Reese only had so much room to maneuver in. Attacked relentlessly as a communist, she frequently ran op-eds against Stalinism and the evils of Russia. Then wrote broadly about improving race relations and taking other unpopular positions like environmental activism.
An ideologue zealous for a score of unpopular causes, it can be easily said that Reese overflew her Mount Dora beat. Yet her reporting was always meticulous (more than once her notes saved her from threats of libel) and her weekly coverage of the community of a magnitude that few today could attempt on their own. Reese was first and foremost a journalist.
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in The Elements of Journalism, “Objectivity (is) not meant to suggest that journalists (are) without bias. To the contrary, precisely because journalists could never be objective, their methods had to be. In the recognition that everyone is biased, in other words, the news, like science, should flow from a process for reporting that is defensible, rigorous, and transparent …” (10)
Reese picked up numerous state and national journalism awards, including a Pulitzer nomination for her reporting on the Platt case. She was the first recipient of the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism, an award named for the abolitionist editor who was killed by a mob after his printing press had been repeatedly destroyed by mobs because of his stand against slavery.
The St. Petersburg Times wrote about state press association awards in 1955 to the Topic for best weekly newspaper and Reese for both news and editorial writing:
We agree with the editorial contest judges that her work is outstanding. The tribute paid her by these awards can only encourage other editors of small papers to take up the worthy causes in other small communities—where the going is often toughest because everybody knows everybody else and nearly every issue becomes a deep personal matter. (Page 4 editorial, June 20, 1955)
Throughout her stint at the Topic, Reese kept vigilant in her editorials—all the while covering shuffleboard and weddings and prep sports and city council meetings where traffic lights and school bus fees were argued.
“In all issues,” she once wrote, “it is not a matter of ‘who is right’ but ‘what is right.” That standard for journalism in the face of so much that is yet not right is what makes a local newspaper the lifeblood of its community.
The strains of controversy wore hard on Mabel Reese and her family. She and husband Paul divorced and they sold the newspaper in 1960. Mabel moved to Daytona Beach with her daughter Pat, re-married, and became a successful columnist at the Daytona Beach News Journal for the rest of her career. She died in 1995 at age 80.
David Cohea, Staff Writer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Next post: A newspaper grows big and proud as Mount Dora grows up.