MOUNT DORA, Fla. – More than 70 years ago, four African-American boys -- later dubbed the Groveland Four -- were accused of raping a 17-year-old white girl in Lake County.
It was a case that made headlines and one that highlighted reporter Mabel Norris Reese.
“One of the bravest women in Florida history. She was the owner, editor, reporter for the Mount Dora Topic newspaper in the 1940s up until around 1960,” said Gary McKechnie, founder of the Mabel Norris Reese Fund in Mount Dora.
McKechnie, in collaboration with artist Jim McNalis, recently unveiled a clay sculpture to honor the life of the journalist.
“Fewer than 10% of sculptures in America are dedicated to women. Fewer than 10%. Why isn’t it 50/50?” McKechnie, who is also a writer, said.
For the artist in charge of memorializing Reese through his work, it was important to highlight what defined her as a woman and a journalist.
“We live in a culture where everybody knows the Kardashians but nobody knows Mabel? And that’s what we’re doing, we’re changing that and it’s bringing her into the light,” McNalis said. “When I heard about Mabel, it was based on Gil King’s book.”
It was Gilbert King’s “Devil In the Grove” non-fiction book that tells the story about the Groveland boys accused of rape in 1949. The Groveland Four was later pardoned by Gov. Ron DeSantis in January 2019.
“This is a time when segregation was deeply rooted in this area, especially in Florida,” McKechnie said.
The book also highlights Reese, who reported on the case with information she received from authorities.
“She was taking her leads from the sheriff, sheriff Willis McCall and she’s believing everything he’s telling her,” McKechnie said.
Until Mabel found out the former Lake County sheriff shot two of the defendants in the case while transporting them to a new trial in 1951. One of them died, the other survived.
“When they take him to the hospital in Eustis, the FBI comes in and says, ‘The sheriff says you tried to jump him,’ he goes ‘No, here’s what happened,'” McKechnie said.
That’s when Reese realized her reporting had been wrong so she began to expose what she found.
“She is among those people who stand for a principle that they consider more important that their own well-being,” McNalis said. “Here was a woman standing alone exposing a murderous sheriff in a community that wasn’t necessarily behind her.”
Reese also became a target of the Ku Klux Klan.
“They burned a cross on her front lawn, they bombed her house, they murdered her dog, dumped dead fish on her front porch and she wrote an editorial about that and she said, ‘If the Ku Klux Klan thinks this is gonna drive me off, they’ve got the wrong lady.’ That’s amazing. That’s a person we should know about,” the artist said.
He described her as a woman who demonstrated courage and integrity. Someone who’s story needed to be told through art.
For the sculpture, McNalis included two details that distinguished Reese. He molded a single strand of pearls she was known to wear regularly and large be-bop cat-eye frame glasses.
But probably the most notable detail is the broach he designed. It includes a key from the typewriter she used. It’s the margin release key, which coincidentally has her initials, MR. The key came from the same typewriter Reese used to expose the truth.
“This is 2020 right now, this is 100th anniversary of the passage of 19th amendment and what better time to celebrate women and give young girls, teenage girls, young ladies, women, people in general, but especially women, a role model, to look at,” McKechnie said.
A pedestal and bronzing of the sculpture is still needed. For donations and to learn more about the story of Mabel Norris Reese, click here.