Where Are The Statues Honoring Women?

By Lauren Ritchie
Orlando Sentinel

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) It is estimated that (nationally) women make up less than 10% of statues honoring historical figures.

Orlando Sentinel

Bet you never heard of Sylvia Luddington. But you know who Paul Revere was, right?

Of course. He’s the patriot who rode like the wind from his home in Boston in April 1775 to notify militia in the countryside that the British were invading during the American Revolution.

But what about Luddington, a girl just a few days past her 16th birthday growing up on a rural farm in Putnam County, N.Y.? She played the same role as Revere except she rode 25 miles to his 12 — through two states, in rain, wrangling a man’s big horse through the pitch black countryside until dawn to warn her father’s militia members that the British had begun to burn Danbury, Conn.

Her story wasn’t even recorded in writing until years after the deed. Things women did to make this country great seldom attain the level of importance of the exploits of men. That ends Sunday in Central Florida with the unveiling of a bust of Mabel Norris Reese, a true homegrown heroine who risked her life to expose one man’s determination to keep blacks down by deliberately and horrifically violating their civil rights violations.

The bust of Reese, owner of the Mount Dora Topic newspaper, will be uncovered in Mount Dora, where she fearlessly reported on a 28-year reign of terror that included killings by the late Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall. She kept writing, even after the sheriff’s venom turned on her.

Can you name a statue of a famous woman in Orlando? Me either.

Shamefully, it’s estimated that fewer than 10% of likenesses honoring historical figures across the nation represent women.

This one had its roots in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Devil in the Grove” by author Gilbert King, who is traveling from New York to be part of the unveiling and panel discussion set for 3 p.m. Sunday at the Mount Dora Community Building. The event is free and open to the public.

The terracotta bust, the work of Fort Lauderdale sculptor Jim McNalis, was the idea of Mount Dora author, community activist and former Democratic state Senate candidate Gary McKechnie, who crowd-sourced the $8,000 cost of Reese’s bust.

What’s most interesting is Reese’s personal journey of covering McCall for years and gradually learning that he wasn’t the strong law-and-order — but upright — sheriff that she thought at first.

Through the 1940s, Reese was a backer of the notorious racist lawman whose stubborn support for segregation and miscegenation landed him in the Nov. 17, 1972 edition of Life magazine under the headline, “High and Mighty Sheriff.”

By then, of course, Reese knew what McCall was.

At the beginning, however, she thought much of the talk about McCall wasn’t really fear but mostly rumor and wildly exaggerated gossip. Then, she began writing about the Groveland Four, three black men and a teenage boy she came to realize were being framed for the rape of a young teenage wife on a lonely road near the rural outpost of Okahumpka one July night in 1949.

She quickly realized that one of the Groveland Four suspects was actually in police custody at the time he was supposed to be raping the 17-year-old girl with the other men he’d never met before he arrived in town just hours earlier. McCall, however, seldom let the evidence get in the way of a good conviction when the suspects were African-American.

When Reese began to write about McCall’s misdeeds, including shooting two of the Groveland Four suspects during a trip back from a north Florida prison to appear in court, she became a target. She had a cross burned on her lawn, her dog was poisoned, her home firebombed and her business defaced.

Finally, her newspaper had to close when a pro-McCall publication opened in Mount Dora, and word hit the street that anyone doing business with Reese and the Mount Dora Topic would regret it.

One has to wonder how many of today’s perfectly coiffed television news twinkies would have kept reporting on McCall after the house where Reese lived with her husband, daughter and parents was firebombed.

Reese was inducted into the Lake County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2018 for standing up to the corrupt sheriff at a time when no other people of influence cared to take him on — especially no men.

The late journalist also was nominated for the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 2019 but didn’t even make the top 10 finalists. The committee instead choose a Radio City Music Hall Rockette dancer who ran a studio for kids and another woman who weighed fish and acted as a dockmaster while promoting tourism in Miami.

Those choices explain why the bust of Reese is so important. She took on injustice and she paid for it in fear, loss of her beloved dog and the destruction of the way she earned her living — and her voice for those oppressed. She chose to keep writing for the Daytona Beach News Journal, where it was harder for Lake County’s worst to get to her.

Reese did for civil rights in Lake County what famed newspaper reporter Nellie Bly did for the mentally ill when she went undercover as a patient at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell’s Island, New York, exposing dire abuse and at the same time, creating a new kind of investigative journalism.

Though young Luddington’s courageous ride still isn’t taught in schools, she surprisingly has her own statue that is part of the small number nationwide of those honoring women. It’s in Carmel, N.Y., where she is depicted riding a big horse who clearly isn’t cooperating while she waves a long stick she took to knock on doors and prod the animal through the night.

Bly is getting her own statue this year — it will be on what today is known as Roosevelt Island and is home to luxury apartment dwellers. All traces of the mental hospital, of course, are long gone.

On Sunday, Reese gets her statue. Here’s hoping that enterprising teachers around Central Florida begin telling her remarkable story in classrooms, especially to young women who live here. They deserve to know that they, too, can play a part in history.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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