“Groveland Four” Decades Later, Florida Finally Apologizes to Falsely Accused Young Men

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Irvin is surrounded here by lawyers, from left, Alex Akerman, Thurgood Marshall, Paul Perkins and Jack Greenberg. Credit Marion Mann, via Gary Corsair

Remember the Groveland Four who raped a young white woman?  It was a lie. Forty years before Donald Trump took out full-page ads in all four of New York City’s major newspapers falsely accusing five young black men of raping a young white woman in New York City’s Central Park, Florida unjustly convicted four young black men of raping a different young white woman. 17-year-old Norma Padgett was the woman who provided the false testimony.  On Thursday, the state issued an apology for this decades-long example of racial injustice. By Resolution, the Senate formally apologized to the “Groveland Four”—Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepard and Ernest Thomas on April 18th 2017. The men are all dead.

The Resolution itself includes a detailed description of the facts of the case:

WHEREAS, on July 16, 1949, a 17-year-old white woman and her estranged husband reported to police that she had been abducted at approximately 2:30 a.m., driven approximately 25 minutes to a dead-end road, and raped by four black men …

Three of the accused Groveland Four young men were then tortured until two confessed to the crime. The fourth accused man, Mr. Thomas, understood “the racial realities of the time and the danger he was in,”  the Resolution stated.  He fled the county.  A mob of 1,000 men tracked him down and killed him, “in a hail of gunfire.”

Reuben Hatcher, the jailer at left, stands with Charles Greenlee, Samuel Shepherd, Walter Irvin and Sheriff McCall in August 1949. The fourth man accused, Ernest Thomas was tracked down and killed. Credit via Gary Corsair

The remainder of the accused men were represented by NAACP lawyers, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Mr. Irvin and Mr. Shepard were sentenced to death. The NAACP appealed the decision of the all-white jury to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The evidence clearly established that Mr. Greenlee and Mr. Thomas were never even at the scene of the alleged crime. The evidence further established that the men were tortured leading to false confessions and crucial evidence, including the woman’s medical examination, were never presented in court.  Mr. Greenlee was sentenced to life in prison. The convictions were unanimously overturned. The men’s tragic treatment by Florida’s law enforcement, however, did not end there.

In 1951, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Lee Irvin were shot and killed while being transported by Sheriff Willis V. McCall. McCall said the two men had attacked him. Mr. Irvin survived only by pretending he was dead after being shot three times.  From his hospital bed, he described how Sheriff McCall forced Mr. Shepherd and him out of the vehicle and shot them down.

From the book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, The Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America

Mr. Irvin was nonetheless re-tried and another all-white jury sentenced him to death, again. He was paroled in 1968 and died in 1970.  Greenlee was paroled in 1962 and died in 2012. However, Sheriff McCall enjoyed a long career.  He was re-elected five more times following the shootings of the falsely accused Groveland Four.

In 1951, Samuel Shepherd and Walter Lee Irvin were shot by Sheriff Willis McCall while being transported. McCall said they had attacked him. Walter Irvin survived and from his hospital bed explained how McCall forced them from the vehicle and shot them down. via State Archives of Florida; Florida Memory State Archives of Florida; Florida Memory

“We cannot go back to this terrible event and undo it,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who sponsored the measure in the Senate. “But we can acknowledge our wrongs. And we can bring peace and healing and closure to the families who have suffered for so long.

The families of the men said the Resolution would allow them to bear their names proudly “because the truth has come out.”  Carol Greenlee, the daughter of Charles Greenlee who, as evidence established was not even at the scene – was an advocate for the apology. Vivian Shepard, the niece of Samuel Sheppard who was killed by Sheriff McCall – said she could not understand the shame she carried throughout her life.

Members of the Irwin family in March of 2016.
Each family member received a proclamation from the County apologizing for the tragedy.

Geraldine Thompson, a former state senator, led the charge to pass a formal apology to the innocent Groveland Four.  It is unknown whether Florida governor Rick Scott will grant a pardon posthumously to the men.

For more information on this horrific and lesser known story, read “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the dawn of a New America.”  Author Gilbert King earned the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction as well as Non-fiction Book of the Year from The Boston Globe and Christian Science Monitor.  In the meantime, it appears that either Willie Padgett, her allegedly abusive husband or the Padgett family have kept Norma in obscurity all of these years.  King attempted to interview Mrs. Padgett, and her niece advised that he “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

Via “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the dawn of a New America.”

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