Mary Moore was in the living room combing her little sister’s hair when she smelled the smoke.
The 10-year-old knew right away that it meant trouble.
She had been left to baby-sit her five younger siblings and two cousins as her mother worked grinding eyeglass lenses. The girl figured she’d be blamed for not watching the children closely enough or accused of playing with matches. “I thought my mom was going to kill me,” she recalled.
The fear shifted when she saw a wall ablaze near the kitchen. The fire could kill them all. She screamed for her little sister to go outside and headed to a back bedroom to get four of the children in her care.
She half-carried, half-herded the group, ages 2 to 6. She fell, but everyone got outside safely. Then she looked back at the blaze from the front yard and realized that her 6-month-old twin brother and sister were in her mother’s front bedroom. It seemed so very close and she turned around and went back into the inferno.
“I was terrified, but I got those babies out of there,” she said.
She called the fire department from a neighbor’s home. The official investigation showed that the late morning fire in February 1969 started in the wiring in the wall somewhere near the kitchen of the wooden home.
There was no original news story about the fire that gutted the South Dallas house. But Moore’s heroism attracted the attention of Julia Scott Reed — the first black reporter hired by a big-city daily in North Texas just two years earlier to write a column about the city’s black community in The Dallas Morning News.
Reed appeared with Moore before the Dallas City Council as the girl accepted a certificate of distinguished service from the Dallas fire chief for her “unselfish and heroic acts.”
Over the next month, she received a certificate of appreciation from WFAA-TV on air, and her elementary school presented her with a $50 award at a school assembly. The Professional Fire Fighters Association presented her with a medal of valor. The state Senate passed a resolution commending her actions. The Advancement of Colored People Youth Council honored her, and she received an “Outstanding Negro” youth award from the Professional Women’s Club.
The attention was heady for Moore. Yet the family’s poverty was stifling, and they moved in with an aunt in West Dallas. “They lost everything in the fire. They need clothes and food and a place to live,” Reed said in her appearance before the City Council with Moore. The city answered her plea with a four-bedroom housing project apartment for the family.
The attention continued and money came in for Moore. A fund was established at South Oak Cliff Bank in Dallas, and newspaper readers were told that “checks made out to Mary Moore may be sent to the bank in care of Pettis Norman.”
By that April, some $600 had been “contributed by business firms, church groups, social groups, individuals, both in and out of the city, and from the school which Mary once attended,” wrote Reed, adding that the entire family was outfitted with new Easter clothes. “A Dallas Negro family, who recently lost home, possessions and hope, will greet this Sunday with their hope victoriously restored.”
Moore aches for some of that hope once again.
In the 43 years since she saved her family, she’s struggled with addiction, depression and disability. She lost two daughters in childbirth and a brother to murder. Her son who was shot 17 times by an unknown assailant, and his body was found on the corner outside her home.
Even the tangible evidence of the days when she was a lauded hero is gone. The medal of valor was stolen, along with her mother’s purse. Her certificates disappeared. And she never saw a penny of the $600 in trust money.
“I remember going to meet with them and they told me about it and how it would help me with an education,” she said. “I had no business being there by myself. I was 10 years old. I want to know what happened to that money.”
She decided finally to search as best she could. But each thread reached a dead end with no paperwork or account number. She tried to hire an attorney. But he required a minimum payment of $2,500, an impossible figure for Moore, who lives on disability and SSI payments each month of $698, along with $75 in food stamps.
The bank that held the trust fund doesn’t exist anymore. It underwent several name changes and went into receivership in 1988.
“It’s very possible that records are destroyed, especially since the bank has been through so much,” said Bob Bacon, deputy commissioner for the Texas Department of Banking. “There was a lot of consolidation going on back at that time.”
According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., financial institutions are required to keep records on inactive accounts for seven years. Any dormant funds are turned over to the state.
A search of the state comptroller’s website showed no funds from the trust under Moore’s or Norman’s name. But the site searches back to only 1986, so a tiny glimmer of hope resurfaced that the funds may be somewhere in the state’s earlier archives. The office is still searching those old records at Problem Solver’s request.
Moore’s nephew took her to visit Norman, who had been entrusted with the money when she was a child. Reed died in 2004.
“I went to Mr. Norman and I spoke to him and asked him if he had any knowledge. That man told me he doesn’t even remember his own account number,” she said. “He offered me $100 to walk out of his office.”
She asked for help from the Southern Methodist University Legal Clinic, which sent a letter to Norman asking for assistance in locating the account number. “As you appear to be the designated trustee of the account, we were hoping you might be of some assistance,” reads the letter dated Feb. 27, 2007.
Moore said there was no response.
Norman, a former professional football player with the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers and owner of his own company PNI and Liquid Love Hair Care, told Problem Solver he was unable to recall the trust fund.
“I don’t remember everything with it,” said Norman. He said he could not speak further about his role as a trustee on the account because he was on his way to a football game. “I left banking in 1973. I can’t remember.”
While the name implies that trusts are something people can count on, they don’t always work out that way and often wind up in court. “Whether a trust turns into litigation depends on the relationship of the parties,” said Joe Marrs of the Houston-based law firm Johns Marrs Ellis & Hodge. “This is a relationship where one person has all the information, all the knowledge and the power. The other person has to rely on them being fair. As long as human nature is around, people are going to get in fights over trusts. If you’re setting up your own trust, you try to pick someone who won’t work you over.”
For Moore, a lawsuit over the trust is an unlikely solution. The statute of limitations to file suit for breach of fiduciary duty in a trust is four years, although there are some extenuating circumstances which exist under the law.
That means that since Moore was a minor when the trust was created in 1969, she had until about 1982 to push her case. “Her big problem is not that there is liability. It’s how long it’s been,” said Marrs, who has worked in trust litigation for a decade.
But as a poor black girl in that era, Moore said that she was excluded from details about the fund even though the money was hers. For many years, she had no idea how to even begin to search. “I had no knowledge of how to look for this,” she said. “There’s got to be something someone can do to get this money. There has to be something that can be done.”
But I couldn’t find anything. The banks are gone. Many of the records are gone. The obvious legal options are gone, and unless it’s found in the state’s old archives, the money is likely gone. With it go Moore’s dreams of using the fund — which could have grown to anywhere within a range of $2,000 to $18,000 in a passbook savings account depending on the interest rate — to make ends meet, to help her 26-year-old son and grandchildren and to tithe to her church.
“Please don’t tell me you can’t help me because this is not right,” she said. “There has been tragedy in my life a long time. Someone needs to tell me where that money is. Maybe someone out there made a contribution to that account and will have the account number and let us know.”