For Mabel Norris Reese, Wednesdays had a special routine. Wednesday was the day the Mount Dora Topic, the weekly newspaper that she and her husband, Paul, owned and ran, went to press. The alarm clock would go off at four a.m. in their house on Morningside Drive in Sylvan Shores, a small, upscale community of Mediterranean Revival and ranch homes along the west side of Lake Gertrude. Within the hour, Mabel would be barreling along the few miles to the Topic’s office in downtown Mount Dora. There she’d go over that week’s edition, making corrections in the lead galleys, before heading back home to cook breakfast for Paul and their daughter, Patricia.
Once Patricia had been seen off to school, Mabel would return to the office with Paul for the long hours ahead. Side by side, they would dress up the pages of the newspaper together. Harold Rawley, who ran the Linotype machine, would set the pages one metal line of type at a time, to be inked and printed later that night on the Old Topper, the Topic’s big press. Mrs. Downs, a seventy- two- year- old widow who had taken over the print work from her late husband, would stand in the hot air atop the press platform, feeding sheets of paper into the jaws of the loud, cranky machine that birthed the “inky babies,” as Mabel called them.
Sturdy and still stylish at forty- three, Mabel favored printed cotton shirtwaist dresses, which she sometimes wore with pearls, and with her bebopper’s cat- eye glasses she was easily spotted out and about in old- fashioned Mount Dora. In addition to covering meetings, writing stories and weekly editorials, taking photographs, and selling ads, Mabel worked the arm on the wing mailer and slapped name stickers on each freshly printed copy until, as she liked to tell Patricia, “the pile on the left goes way down and the pile on the right climbs to a mountain.” (Patricia herself attended to the wrapping and stamping of the papers, and Paul and his brother delivered the lot of them to the post office.)
Mabel had performed this strenuous Wednesday routine more than five hundred times in the ten years that she and Paul had been publishing the Topic. She’d missed only two issues— once when she’d been briefly hospitalized and once the previous summer, when she’d traveled to Illinois to accept a journalism award. But when, in the wee hours of December 18, rumors of a white woman’s rape began to circulate, Mabel deviated from her normal Wednesday routine and instead followed her reportorial instincts. They took her to Okahumpka, where she’d heard that residents of North Quarters were being harassed. There she found that Sheriff McCall’s deputies were not only terrorizing the residents but also arresting on suspicion virtually every young black male in the neighborhood. One of them described how Negro suspects were being rounded up and taken in by up to five carloads at a time. “They woke me up at two a.m. and told me I would get the electric chair if they didn’t kill me beforehand,” he said. Another Okahumpka resident told Mabel, “They took in thirty- three of our menfolk. Not just men, but boys, too . . . A body couldn’t do anything but wait for ’em to come pounding on the door.”
By daybreak, Mabel had pages of notes to transcribe, and they reverberated with fear— fear that, once again, the Lake County Sheriff’s Department was indiscriminately rounding up young black men, and that, once again, violence would come of it. “A restlessness began to run through the quarters,” Mabel wrote, “and it mounted steadily.”