(Originally published March 28, 2012) When I first heard the murder of Trayvon Martin took place in Sanford, Florida the first person I thought about was the late, legendary sports editor of the AFRO, Sam Lacy, a member of the journalists’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
When I became a reporter for the AFRO in 1989 I was blessed to share the same office with Mr. Lacy; I couldn’t put a price on the education in journalism and history he gave me that first year.
But, the series of stories he told me about his involvement in Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball were the most mesmerizing and compelling of them all and the story he relayed that was most harrowing originated in Sanford, Florida.
Lacy, along with his contemporary Wendell Smith of the Pittsburg Courier – another pioneering sports writer – traveled around the country for two years lobbying Major League Baseball and Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey for Robinson’s admission to the Majors.
But, on March 4, 1946, it was Lacy who accompanied Robinson to the small ballpark in Sanford, Florida. Robinson had been signed by the Dodgers a month earlier – breaking baseball’s color barrier – and he was traveling for spring training with the Dodgers minor league team the Montreal Royals during a tour of the Deep South.
Of course, Robinson’s presence on the team as they traveled through the South was wrought with great peril for him.
When Robinson and Lacy approached the stadium by car that evening a large crowd of Sanford’s White citizens had gathered – some of them members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was very active in that region of the state – and they were determined to keep Robinson out of “their” ballpark.
Further, they were determined to run Robinson out of Sanford one way or another.
Some of those White members of the community met with the mayor of Sanford and demanded Robinson be forced out of town. As a result, Sanford city officials informed the Royals, Black and White ballplayers would not be allowed on the same playing field together.
But, according to Mr. Lacy, Robinson, the future Hall-of-Famer was undeterred by the hostile throng gathered at the stadium. The two drove to the back of the ballpark and entered the field through a plank in the outfield fence.
It’s unclear whether or not Robinson actually played in that game, but what was abundantly clear is that racial oppression was as heavy in the air of Sanford as the infamous humidity; Robinson exited Sanford that night by order of Dodgers owner Branch Rickey.
In 2012, more than 70 years later Sanford still proves to be a racial powder keg.
As the world focuses on Sanford, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder it has been revealed the Klan allegedly is still active there. The police department has been accused of corruption and blatant discrimination against Sanford’s citizens of color including dubious investigations by the department in the murder of at least three other Black men in recent years.
But, the murder of another Black man and his wife in Sanford – five years after Jackie Robinson was run out of town – and decades before the Trayvon Martin tragedy – shook the Black community of Central Florida to its core.
Harry Tyson Moore was the founder of the first branch of the NAACP in Seminole County, Fla., the county Sanford is located in. Moore, who was a teacher worked tirelessly for equal pay for Black teachers in public schools, filed lawsuits against voter registration barriers for Blacks, investigated lynchings and eventually became the state secretary for the Florida chapter of the NAACP.
From 1944 to 1950 Moore’s work led to an increase in Black voter registration in Florida to 31 percent of those eligible to vote, higher than any other Southern state.
Moore was a bold “race man,” and because of his relentless methods he was dangerous in the eyes of many in the White community.
So much so that on Christmas night of 1951, the home of Moore and his wife Harriette Vyda Simms Moore was fire bombed. It was the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary. Moore died on his way to a Sanford hospital and his wife died 9 days later of her injuries.
After their deaths, firebombing became a popular method of White racist intimidation in the South.
No one was ever indicted in their murders. However, in 2006 the state of Florida concluded the Moore’s were murdered as a result of a conspiracy by the Central Florida Ku Klux Klan.
Decades after Robinson and Lacy’s precarious racial encounter and the assassination of Harry Moore and his wife, Sanford’s legacy of intolerance and racial animus are alive and well.
Let’s hope real justice is served in the murder of Trayvon Martin so that town’s omnipresent and volatile racial powder keg isn’t ignited once and for all.
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