Updated: Mar 13, 2022
In 1950 and 1951, the Ku Klux Klan brutally murdered two young Black men from Oakland who worked in the citrus fields. For decades, the stories were passed down in whispers—if they were shared at all. Now, the town is finally, publicly, acknowledging what happened 70 years ago.
It was just after 10:30 p.m. on March 28, 1951, when Julius Mosby heard banging on the front door of the Oakland home he shared with his wife; his mother; and a lodger, Melvin Womack, a 27-year-old who had come to Oakland to work in the nearby citrus groves. Before Julius could answer it, four white men with flashlights, Klansmen, kicked the door in. They headed for Womack’s bedroom, dragged him out of bed and out of the house. They threw him in their car and drove off.
The next time anyone saw Womack, he was lying in an orange grove, wearing just his shorts, barely alive. He’d been beaten, stabbed, shot in the head and back, then left for dead. A constable had found him and returned him home to the "Negro quarters of Oakland" where the physician A.H. Gleason was called. After a quick examination, the doctor sent him on to Orange Memorial Hospital. At that time, the hospital had separate waiting areas for black and white patients, and it’s not known how long Womack waited to be seen. He died in the hospital, two days later.
That’s where the story would have ended if an anonymous note had not arrived at the Orlando Evening Star late in the evening on April 2, 1951, urging that the death be reported. The reporters weren't able to uncover much, but they did learn that Womack’s official cause of death was gunshot wounds, noting that the doctor who performed the autopsy said five slugs were taken from Womack’s back that “looked like buckshot, but that they were the largest buckshot he had ever seen.”
Reporters questioned then-Orange County Sheriff Dave Starr about why there had been no announcement about the case. According to the Evening Star, the sheriff claimed he was trying to uncover clues that the Klan was responsible for the attack. (This was likely untrue. Forty years later, reporting in the Orlando Sentinel and FBI files showed that Starr as well as C.G. Sanders, the constable who found Womack in the citrus grove, and Winter Garden Justice of the Peace C.M. "Pete" Tucker, who had been notified about Womack's abduction, were all members of the KKK.)
As for what the Klansmen wanted with Womack, it turned out to be a tragic case of mistaken identity. They were after Womack’s brother-in-law Luther Coleman, the janitor at Winter Garden Elementary, who’d been accused of entering a girls restroom unescorted. Though the school principal tried to refute the allegation, Coleman had been beaten and shot on the street in broad daylight by Klansmen — in front of a Winter Garden police officer, another Klansman, who stood idly by. Coleman managed to escape and left town that night. When the Klan tried to finish the job they grabbed Womack, believing him to be Coleman, according to Unsolved Civil Rights Murder Cases, 1934-1970 by Michael Newton.
Womack’s murder, along with that of another Black citrus worker, Willie Vincent — who’d been found on April 9 the year before, by the side of an Oakland highway with a fractured skull — are finally receiving official acknowledgement from the Town of Oakland. Both men are commemorated in the Healthy West Orange Arts and Heritage Center’s Black History Month exhibit on display through the end of March. While both of their names are inscribed on a marble monument erected by the Equal Justice Initiative in 2019 just outside the Peace and Justice Memorial Center at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, this exhibit marks the first time that Oakland has publicly acknowledged their lynchings in the 70 years since the murders occurred.
“It's important to acknowledge what happened in our past and learn from those mistakes,” said Elisha Pappacoda, Oakland’s administrative services and communications director, who curated the exhibit.
Tucked in among the art work celebrating Black history are photos, news clippings, and Womack’s death certificate. While this exhibit is temporary, Pappacoda anticipates discussions about a “more permanent marker for Mr. Womack and Mr. Vincent in the Town of Oakland.”
“It is something that happened here,” Pappacoda said. “It was not that long ago. There are still people here that may remember this incident. We definitely wanted to make sure that we were honoring the memory of Melvin Womack and telling his story.”
A Novel Contribution
To tell Womack’s story, we also need to take a moment to talk about an FBI informant, F. Lee MacWithey, who helped bring the Apopka Klan to justice. He was also immortalized as Warren McMahon in Susan McCarthy’s thinly veiled 2002 novel about Womack’s murder, Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands. MacWithey was McCarthy’s father, an Apopka citrus farmer who’d moved his family to Florida from Chicago in the late 1940s.
In the early 1950s, the Florida Klan had more chapters (Klaverns) and members than any other southern state — even the governor at the time, Fuller Warren, was a known Klan member. The Florida Klan was believed responsible for bombings, multiple murders, and the 1951 Christmas Eve assassination of Harry T. Moore and his wife Harriette. Moore was the leader of the Florida chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (now known simply as NAACP). His murder is considered the first of the civil rights era.
The Moores’ murders received national attention and led to a huge FBI investigation. The belief was that KKK members from Apopka and Winter Garden were responsible, and agents fanned out along Orange Blossom Trail (U.S. Route 441) looking for leads.
“FBI agents were canvassing all the businesses in the area. My parents’ business [VoMac Groves] was on 441, the Orange Blossom Trail,” McCarthy said in an interview with VoxPopuli. “I spoke to one of the FBI agents who said they were under constant pressure to speak to anyone who might know anything.”
McCarthy said her father became an FBI informant after an Apopka Klansman shot at a water tower where her then 8-year-old brother and his friend “stood making ghost noises at the funny men dressed up like white ghosts.”
On a night when area Klansmen gathered at a rally at Lake Eola Park in Orlando, MacWithey slipped into the Apopka Klan headquarters, which McCarthy said was “disguised as a fishing camp on a small lake off Old Boy Scout Road near the old county dump.” On instructions from his FBI handler, MacWithey was tapping on the walls with a ball peen hammer, searching for a secret compartment that contained the Klan's membership and treasurer’s rosters. When he found it, the compartment contained a Bible, some cash and the rosters.
“My dad took the books and left the Bible and cash,” McCarthy said. “He and my mom said the [membership] roster read like the Chamber of Commerce. They drove to Orlando and mailed the books in a packet supplied by the FBI.”
The books were key evidence in the 1952 grand jury indictment of seven Florida Klansmen, five of whom were from Apopka.
The state of Florida ordered the files sealed, and they remained sealed for 40 years until James C. Clark, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel made a Freedom of Information Act request in 1991 for articles he was writing on Moore’s assassination and the Klan’s influence in Orange County.
McCarthy said her father worried there might be “some blowback” once the files were unsealed since his informant days had been a secret, and his grandchildren were going to school with the grandchildren of some of the Klansmen named in the files. Ultimately, the blowback amounted to nothing more than a bit of gossip, and McCarthy accessed those FBI files, as well, to write her novel, centering it around her father’s experiences and Womack’s unsolved murder.
Although the book scooped up awards — named one of San Diego Magazine’s Best Fiction Books of 2002 and winner of the 2003 Chautauqua South Fiction Award — and became a fixture in middle-, high-school and university English classes, it would be another 12 years before anyone made the connection between Marvin Cully, murdered by the “Opalakee Klan” in McCarthy’s book, and Melvin Womack.
It was one of McCarthy’s lectures in the Orlando area that piqued the curiosity of local historian Francina Boykin, whose grandfather was once badly beaten by the KKK. Boykin is vice president of the Apopka Historical Society and a founding member of Democracy Forum’s Ocoee Massacre Project, which had made new discoveries about that atrocity, including the location of lynching victim July Perry’s grave. She was also a consultant on the Healthy West Orange Arts and Culture Center exhibit.
“It just bothers me to know that this man died, and nobody ever said a word about him,” Boykin said in a phone interview, referring to Womack. She said it still haunts her that Womack’s family may have never known what happened to him. Even if she finds his descendants, she can’t even tell them where he’s buried. “Nobody knows about him but the people who have kept silent.”
McCarthy set her novel in the fictional town of Mayflower, but Boykin recognized enough places and characters to see it as a stand-in for Apopka. She started looking for clues to Womack’s murder there. When a friend who liked reading old newspapers in the library brought her an article from the Orlando Evening Star that mentioned Womack by name, she realized she needed to focus her search on Oakland instead.
Boykin called the town clerk and police department. “The police department had no records going back that far. And because no charges were filed, there was nothing with the Clerk of Court,” Boykin said. “I'm still looking for the inquiry. You know, it has to be somewhere. It's not in the FBI files.”
Using McCarthy’s book and her investigative skills, Boykin tracked down Julius Mosby, then in his ‘90s, who was in the Oakland house the March night Womack was abducted in 1951. Boykin said he told her he “remembers the night when the four white men came to their house, went to Melvin’s bedroom and kicked the door in.” She added that Mosby didn’t share any other details. “I didn’t want to put any pressure on him, but he gave me the basics to know that he remembered the night Melvin was abducted.
“He would never forget that night because they were all petrified that Melvin was being taken away,” Boykin continued. “This family has lived in darkness. They couldn't talk about this, I don't think, to anybody about it but themselves.”
But, apart from Mosby, who has since died, none of the other Mosby family members would speak with Boykin about that terrible night. “People really were very quiet if they knew anything,” she said. "Julius Mosby was the only person who actually opened up to share with me.”
Oakland Commissioner Joseph McMullen said that some residents whose families have lived in town since the early 1900s may find the racialized terror attacks too painful to talk about.
“When we have something tragic, they tend to suppress it, and they don't want to hear about it, they really don't. Sometimes it can be painful for some people to relive something that happens to them. But you gotta tell the story.
“You're not doing it to make someone uncomfortable,” he continues. “You're doing it just to tell the story and capture that history, and then acknowledge that it happened. What can we do? How can we heal and move forward and not let that stuff happen again?”