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A briefcase of racial violence

A chance discovery deepens the mystery of a 1951 double murder.

By MELANIE AVE
Published February 18, 2007


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Soon after dynamite exploded beneath civil rights activist Harry T. Moore's house in rural Mims in 1951, killing him and his wife, his briefcase was salvaged from the rubble.

The briefcase wound up with the FBI. But as investigation after investigation failed to solve the murders, the briefcase and its contents disappeared.

Three months ago, historical preservationists made a startling discovery in an old barn 900 yards from Moore's home in Brevard County. Wedged behind boxes of jars was a briefcase with hundreds of letters, notes, programs, a list of black lynchings and newspaper clippings belonging to Moore, the former head of the Florida NAACP.

"We all looked at each other and said, 'Oh my God! Do you know what we found?'" recalled Roz Foster, founder of the North Brevard Heritage Foundation.

The barn belonged to two white brothers who authorities say were racists and who were among the first people to show up at Moore's house the night of the bombing. The Florida Attorney General's Office has identified the briefcase as the one that disappeared from FBI custody.

If nothing else, the documents shed new light on Moore's civil rights work, said Ben Green, Moore's biographer. Others familiar with the case also wonder if the discovery could be a key to solving one of Florida's more enduring mysteries: Who killed Harry T. Moore?

"It is a strange thing that they ended up in that particular barn," said Bill Gary, president of the North Brevard NAACP and the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex in Mims. "So the question is, how did that happen?"

'Duty to pursue'

No one was ever charged with the Moores' killing, despite four separate investigations.

The most recent took two years and found "extensive circumstantial evidence" of a conspiracy by four now-deceased Ku Klux Klan members.

Members of the Legislature's black caucus plan to meet with Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday to ask him to reopen the Moore investigation.

"There's still a lot of unmet questions that don't pass the smell test," said state Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville and a member of the caucus.

Stetson Kennedy, a Florida author who spent years researching the KKK, also asked Crist to investigate.

Kennedy, 90, said one of the brothers who owned the barn, Donnie Hutcheson, worked for a klansman. And investigators said the other brother, Leon Hutcheson, worked for the local state attorney, whose investigation has been questioned. Neither has been named a suspect.

"In my humble opinion," Kennedy wrote in a Feb. 12 letter to Crist, "this could be the break in the case we have all been working and hoping for."

Though Attorney General Bill McCollum's office says it has ended its review of the briefcase, Crist said he is absolutely open to a new investigation.

"If there's any way that there's any additional evidence that can give us more information about what happened in that case," he said, "we have a duty to pursue it."

Papers in good shape

How the briefcase might have passed through many hands and ended up in the barn is unclear.

About 25 minutes after the Moore bombing, records show, the brothers rushed to the couple's wood frame house. They would have known about the briefcase because Harriette Moore, who died of her injuries nine days later, had asked her brother to retrieve it from the rubble, and Leon Hutcheson had helped a deputy search for it.

Moore's brother-in-law recovered the briefcase and gave it to the state attorney, who later gave it to the FBI.

The FBI interviewed and cleared the Hutcheson brothers as suspects early in the investigation. They are both dead.

The property, vacant for about 15 years, is being developed for housing. The foundation wanted the barn for a heritage park.

Foster said the group found the briefcase between Widden's Royal Jelly boxes and a metal trash can lid.

"We were amazed at the condition of the papers to be stored where they were," she said. "They were in excellent condition."

Foster turned the briefcase, as well as a dynamite box containing glass bottles, over to McCollum's office two days later.

Last week McCollum said investigators concluded the documents did not provide any new evidence on the murders.

Investigators could not determine how the briefcase ended up in the barn, said McCollum spokeswoman Jenny Nash.

Nash said investigators did not find the dynamite box to be unusual because explosives were commonly used in local citrus groves.

One view of history

Moore biographer Green, a Florida State University professor, said the documents are of great historical significance.

"There is a ton of new material that I haven't seen," he said in an e-mail after reading many of the documents. "It's really a history of racial violence in Florida, through his eyes. I also come away impressed, more than ever, with how prolific he was, how fearless, and how dedicated to challenging every racial injustice he encountered."

Moore's only surviving daughter, Evangeline, 76, and living in New Carrollton, Md., said her father's missing briefcase has been "a mystery to me all these years."

McCollum has given her copies of the documents and plans to give her the briefcase and its contents, which she said has restored lost memories.

Moore said she is satisfied with McCollum's review and only wants her father's belongings returned. Still, questions run through her mind.

"Why would they keep a briefcase?" she asked. "There are some suspicions for me, but it's all over. I understand they're all dead. It's all over for me."

Times staff writer Ron Matus and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at 727 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

 

See them

To see the documents belonging to Harry T. Moore and information about the case go to: myfloridalegal.com

[Last modified February 18, 2007, 00:24:14]


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