In 1949, a 17-year-old white girl by the name of Norma Padgett accused four black men, later known as the Groveland Four, of grabbing her on a dark road in central Florida, then taking turns to rape her on the back seat of their car.
The Washington Post reported that, at the time, many doubted her story, speculating that she was simply trying to cover up for the bruises she was sporting due to her husband’s violence.
Willis McCall was the local sheriff, and within just days of hearing Padgett’s complaint, one of the suspects was dead, and three others from the City of Groveland were in jail. Ernest Thomas was killed by an angry mob, led by Sheriff McCall, who chased the suspect more than 200 miles into the Panhandle.
Violence erupted in Groveland — large groups of white citizens demanded that the four men be punished immediately, and turned their rage onto the black citizens of the area. Properties were destroyed, and black families were shot in their homes. The chaos was so intense that the National Guard was eventually called.
The three remaining suspects were quickly convicted by an all-white jury, and Charles Greenlee, who was only 16-years-old at the time, was imprisoned for life. The other two, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd, both Army veterans, were sentenced to death, even though at the time of the alleged incident, two of them were in Orlando, and the other was 19 miles away.
Their convictions were later overturned by the United States Supreme Court and a retrial was ordered. But, Sheriff McCall shot them both before they could be retried. Shepherd was killed immediately, but Irvin survived by playing dead. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
Besides inspiring a revelatory Pulitzer prize-winning book, the story of the “Groveland Four” forever tarnished the reputation of the City of Groveland. It also became the subject of an online petition that demanded the formal exoneration of all four men.
And now, 68 years later and following several failed attempts, the state of Florida has finally been able to say the words, “We’re truly sorry.”
On Tuesday, on the floor of the Florida House of Representatives, a resolution was unanimously passed by lawmakers which not only apologized to the families of the Groveland Four but exonerated all four men and called for posthumous pardons.
According to the Miami Herald, Representative Bobby DuBose said, “This resolution is us simply saying ‘We’re sorry,’ understanding that we will never know nor be able to make up for the pain we have caused.” DuBose then asked members of the house to stand and face relatives of the Groveland Four.
“As the state of Florida and the House of Representatives, we’re truly sorry.”
This formal acknowledgment of racial injustice has taken many years to eventuate. Author Gilbert King wrote a book titled Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, which revived interest in the case. He also uncovered new evidence that cast doubt on Norma Padgett’s version of what occurred that night.
Josh Venkataraman was a student at the University of Florida and, after reading King’s book in 2015, he happened to pass the road sign for the City of Groveland.
The book had had such an impact on him that seeing the sign made him reach out to the late Charles Greenlee’s daughter, Carole Greenlee, who was living in Nashville. He asked if there was anything he could do to help.
Carole gave Venkataraman permission to start a petition. The petition, titled Exonerate the Groveland Four, was created and has gathered almost 9,000 signatures to date.
Venkataraman witnessed the formal apology on Tuesday, saying he “couldn’t be happier for the family members of the Groveland Four who have become like family to me.” Also in court to witness the apology were 67-year-old Carole Greenlee and her 52-year-old brother, Thomas.
Associated Press reported that Carol said that her father would have been glad that something positive had come out of such a negative experience.
“Today, a part of it is forgiveness. And he would feel good about that. This means that something positive has come out of something so wrong and so negative and so bad.”
At the time of being accused of raping Padgett, Carole Greenlee was in her mother’s womb, while her father had been in Lake County looking for a job to support his young family. Her mother would take her to visit her father in jail every Sunday, but eventually, the visits ended, and Carol didn’t see her father again until he was paroled in 1962 when she was a pre-teen. All up, Greenlee spent 12 years in prison.
Last month Carole Greenlee spoke to the Daily Commercial and said that her father, whom she referred to as “Daddy,” never talked about what had happened. But she felt like she needed to know, so one day she asked her father about it.
“He told me that he never knew the person he was accused of raping. He said the first time he even knew what was actually going on and the first time he ever saw Padgett was when he was in court being tried.”
Greenlee never appealed his conviction, but Shepherd and Irvin did. Their convictions were initially upheld by the Florida Supreme Court, but the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned them.
However, Sheriff McCall shot them on the return trip from prison to Lake County, where they were to undergo a new trial. The story McCall told of Irvin and Shepherd trying to escape when he pulled over to check a tire is entirely different to Irvin’s story, the only survivor of the incident.
Irvin claimed they were shot in cold blood by McCall after he pulled over and forced the men out of the car. He then shot both men, killing one, then bragged on the radio that he had “got rid of them.”
In his second trial, Irvin was once again convicted and, after appeal, the Supreme Court denied the case. At the time, the governor also rejected a clemency appeal and Irvin’s execution was scheduled. His life was saved by an emergency stay, and his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was finally released from jail in 1968.
Greenlee died in 2012 at 78-years-old, and Irvin died of a heart attack in 1970 while attending a funeral in Lake County.
The City of Groveland and Lake County offered apologies to the four men and their families in 2016, then began lobbying state lawmakers to follow suit.
Fusion reported that, while passing a resolution to apologize to the four families, the Florida House of Representatives recognized that the men were convicted on shaky evidence during the Jim Crow era and that Sheriff McCall was a notoriously racist sheriff.
“SCR 920 acknowledges the grave injustice perpetrated against Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, the men who came to be known as the ‘Groveland Four.’ Despite a lack of evidence or credible witnesses, the four men were charged with rape.”
Carole Greenlee said that the families are now waiting for their loved ones to be exonerated.
“It would be a tremendous burden lifted off our families’ shoulders. It’s a dark cloud that needs to be cleared. For years, your father is locked up in prison growing up and you’re ashamed. At that time, it was a bad thing and going forward, I don’t want his nieces and nephews left with that same feeling about their family legacy for something that was not even true.”
[Featured Image by Oneword/Shutterstock]