Featured Historical Fiction Author
The Power of the Individual
An Interview with Susan Carol McCarthy
by Joyce Dixon
Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands is an eye-opening novel based on real events during the days when the Klan held the power in Florida, and the actions of one man to bring it to its knees. In her debut novel, Susan Carol McCarthy tells her father's story and that of Harry T. Moore using records that have been sealed for more than 40 years.
Susan Carol McCarthy has been named the recipient of the 2003 Chautauqua South Fiction Award for her book Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands. Ms. McCarthy will receive her award and speak at Blake Library in Stuart, Florida, on Friday, February 28, 2003.
This started as a family history project to collect your father's stories for his seventy-fifth birthday. When did you realize that this story had to be told to offer another viewpoint of Florida's Civil Rights history? What event did your father tell that triggered the novel?
The historical events in the novel took place in 1951-52. In the aftermath of investigations by both the FBI and a Federal Grand Jury in Miami, the State Attorney elected to "seal the record" for 40 years. In 1991, the files were unsealed and a series of newspaper articles, based on the files, began appearing in the Orlando Sentinel. In October 1991, my father sent me a large envelope with clippings of the Sentinel stories as well as an eight-page letter which began, "I want you to hear from the horse's mouth what I did, and why." Even in abbreviated letter form, it was a jaw-dropping tale -- one that he knew, and I realized, had to be told.
Since you did not experience these events, is Reesa based on another family member or did you project yourself into that period for a young girl's viewpoint? What was the effect on you as a writer as Reesa grew from innocent child to activist and healer?
I grew up with four brothers and no sisters. As the only girl (and next to the youngest), I pined for a powerful big sister to tip the family scales in a less male direction. In many ways, Reesa is the embodiment of those childhood cravings, as well as a braver, brighter spokesperson for my own feelings about my parents, our town and the effect of those times. What was her effect on me as a writer? Reesa taught me an incredible amount about what the writing books call "active voice." Like any big sister, she badgered the hell out of me -- in a voice clear and distinct inside my head -- to work hard and get it right. She pushed me to research each and every historic detail thoroughly. And she helped me get through the tremendous loss of my dad just after his seventy-fourth birthday.
How widespread was the Klan in Florida? Why did the Klan families talk freely around their maids and send their hooded sheets to the local dry cleaners?
Verifiable statistics are hard to come by. But, according to Stetson Kennedy in The Klan Unmasked, the "Southern and Northern Knights of the KKK" held a 1952 Klonvokation in Jacksonville, naming it the new Imperial City, and claiming that the 150 Klepeers (delegates) in attendance represented 650,000 Klansmen in 302 Klaverns in twelve states. In 1951, Orange County, Florida -- the setting for Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands -- had three active Klaverns. Why did the Klansmen feel free to flaunt their affiliation in front of one and all? In our community, membership was akin to being in the Rotary, or the Chamber of Commerce. As for the maids, they were ubiquitous in the homes of well-to-do Klansmen; their see-all presence often overlooked and, in the context of my father's story, completely underestimated.
Was Marvin Cully a real lynching, or a fictional one based on lynchings of that era?
In March 1951, a young Central Florida citrus picker named Melvin Womack was grabbed, stabbed and shot in the head by local Klansmen in, according to local gossip, an apparent case of mistaken identity. The details of Marvin Cully's murder mirror those of Melvin Womack. Marvin's character, however, was inspired by the many bright, young, storytelling pickers who worked in my family's groves when I was a child.
The story of Rosewood is well-known. The Ocoee Riot described in your novel has the same impact. How common was it in Florida for black communities to disappear from the map?
Long before I read Zora Neale Hurston's written account of the "Ocoee Riot," I heard about it from the wife of one of our pickers who, like the character of Armetta Cully, was a child survivor of that terrible attack. Did what happened in Rosewood and Ocoee happen elsewhere in Florida? I couldn't say.
The Klan didn't limit their attacks to the black community. What were the circumstances that they would attack those of the white community?
According to the Miami Herald's 1953 account of Klan confessions before the Grand Jury, Central Florida Klansmen admitted to beating two white men for "molesting girls" and "drinking and neglecting his family," a white couple for "marital infidelity," and two white girls for "bathing in the nude."
Much of your book deals with voting rights activist Harry T. Moore and the bombing of his bedroom on Christmas night 1951, which took his life and that of his wife, Harriette Moore. Has your book caused more interest in this unsolved murder? What response has your book received from those involved in the Harry T. Moore Memorial Park in Mims, Florida?
The most important response I sought and received was from the Moores' only surviving daughter, Evangeline, who agreed to read the manuscript prior to publication. (It was clear, early on, that in telling my own father's story, I was telling her father's as well.) When she called to say she was delighted -- "That was my daddy," she said. "You really got him." -- a huge weight of concern was lifted. In 1991-92, Florida's Department of Law Enforcement reinvestigated the Moores' murder case and declared it officially unsolvable. The greater tragedy, to me and to Evangeline Moore, is that most Civil Rights historians peg the beginning of the modern movement with Rosa Parks in 1955, completely overlooking Harry T. and Harriette Moore's rightful role as its first true martyrs. Evangeline was crushed when, in 1989, she discovered that our nation's new Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, to the movement's "forty martyrs," begins with Emmett Till who died in 1955. Even the NAACP, the affiliation which cost the Moores their lives, omits mention of their deaths on its website's historical timeline. This is just plain wrong.
Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers play an emotional role in your novel. What did the Dodgers mean to this community?
To African-Americans everywhere, Jackie Robinson was a towering symbol of "what could be." I included him in the novel as a hero to both Marvin and the community because he was. And because for anyone who loves baseball, the October 1951 pennant-chasing playoff between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants was an epic of mythological proportions.
In recent years, there have been several impressive debut books to be published after the author attended the Maui Writers' Retreat. What did you get out of the experience, and how did it improve your novel?
I was fortunate to land in Elizabeth George's master class. Elizabeth writes densely plotted and peopled British mysteries which wind up regularly on the NY Times bestseller list. She's forgotten more about plot and character than I will ever know. Her class was tough but, in the end, very beneficial to my novel's structure and characterization.
What effect has the publishing of your father's story have on you and your family?
The most important effect (to me, at any rate) is that the book has achieved its original intent -- to help my children, and my brothers' children, truly appreciate the character and courage of their grandparents and great-grandmother. Of course, my oldest brother didn't initially appreciate having Reesa bump him out of his firstborn privilege and position. But, as far as I know, he's over it.
Tell us about MY HARP HANGS UPON THE WILLOW, which will be published February 2004.
Like Trumpet, it is a fictional account of true events that took place in Florida, this time in 1954. That fall, just months after the Supreme Court's Brown vs State Board decision on integration, a mixed race family (part Native American) moved to Lake County from the Carolinas and enrolled their children in the local white school. The local Sheriff, a notorious racist who appears in my first novel, took one look at the kids and yanked them out of school with the comments, "That boy's got kinky hair," and "I don't like the shape of her nose." That might have been the end of the story but, fortunately, the local newspaper had a brand new female editor who was fearless (some would say foolhardy) in taking on the Sheriff, the school board, the county elite, the Governor and anyone else who sought to "deny these children their constitutional rights without due process." It was an amazing battle of wills, a countywide conflagration of conscience which ended in an incredible ....Well, I can't give that away now, can I?
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